Ban the Bags is a national campaign to stop maternity hospital marketing in the form of gift bags provided by infant formula manufacturers. The campaign grew out of efforts in Massachusetts to stop aggressive formula company marketing tactics in hospitals. Multiple studies have shown that formula marketing campaigns undermine mothers who choose to breastfeed, and coopt medical professionals into promoting expensive brand-name formula.
Debate about the proposed ban has drawn national attention, leading hundreds of hospitals to remove this marketing gimmick from their maternity units. The national Ban the Bags campaign is working to educate the public about the issue and encourage families and health care professionals to move marketing tactics out of maternity hospitals. Hospitals should market health, and nothing else.
FORMULA “GIFT” BAGS
Distribution of formula company gift bags to new mothers when they leave the hospital has been happening for decades. This is actually not a free gift but a marketing practice called sampling. Formula companies compensate hospitals to give out these bags in the hopes of securing more customers and a larger market share for their product. Many doctors and nurses enjoy giving patients a “free gift,” but don’t appreciate the hidden costs associated with this marketing strategy. Hospital staff may not realize that free samples are linked with earlier use of formula among nursing mothers in randomized controlled trials.
Professionals who have never purchased formula may not realize that name-brand products cost a third more than store-brand products, raising costs considerably for bottle-feeding families. Mothers who purchase formula pay for all of the “free” gift bags, materials, supplies, food, and education that formula companies provide to hospitals. Most consumers do not enjoy paying $25 for a can of powdered formula when there is probably no more than $.25 worth of ingredients in it! A good portion of that inflated price goes to enticing the health care system to act as a marketing conduit, positioning infant formula as being endorsed by a trusted source of health care.
Fortunately, many hospitals have realized that they were being used as a marketing agent for brand name products and have abandoned the practice of commercial formula gift distribution. It is not only an ethical conflict of interest but works directly to neutralize the efforts of mothers to breastfeed their infants. Families who exclusively formula-feed pay an additional $700 a year for that “free” bag when they purchase the high price brand name product advertised by the hospital, instead of much less expensive store brand formula.
There are now 731 bag-free hospitals and birth centers, 22% of all of the US hospitals with maternal/newborn services. Congratulations are especially in order for Rhode Island and Massachusetts, states where all maternity hospitals have banned the bags.
Ban the Bags keeps a database of hospitals that have reported that they are bag free. Readers can check to see if their hospital has ceased setting up their maternity patients as marketing targets by checking the Ban the Bags hospital formula bag distribution status
WHAT YOU CAN DO.
The campaign to end formula gift distribution in hospitals is in full swing. Readers should note however, that when a hospital ends this practice, the formula gifts migrate out into the community with formula gifts showing up in obstetric and pediatric offices, in clinics and ultrasound centers, even in baby photographer’s studios!
You can help end this practice by refusing the “gift” and speaking up about your distaste at being a marketing target. Write a letter to your hospital complaining that you came there for health care, not to experience a commercial onslaught of brand name products that are potentially detrimental to your infant’s health and yours as well. If you intend to purchase formula, tell the hospital that you do not appreciate their contribution to the exorbitant price you must pay for it because they participate as a marketing arm of formula manufacturers.
You can direct a letter to the hospital’s Risk Management Department reminding them that since the maternity unit does not routinely record the lot number of the gift bag and the contact information of the mother to whom it was given, they have no mechanism to inform the mother if there is a recall of the formula in the bag. Powdered infant formula in gift bags is not sterile and has the potential to be contaminated.
You have the option to contact your state department of health and ask that they require hospitals to cease this practice by writing the prohibition into the state hospital/perinatal regulations. Ask that they also write a letter to every hospital in your state with a maternal/newborn service describing the practice as not in the best interest of maternity patients.
Marsha Walker, RN, IBCLC is a registered nurse, international board certified lactation consultant, international speaker, and author. She has been assisting breastfeeding families in hospital, clinic, and home settings since 1976. Marsha is the executive director of the National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy: Research, Education, and Legal Branch (NABA REAL), board member of the Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition, the US Lactation Consultant Association (USLCA), and Baby Friendly USA.