In an attempt to raise the nation's historically low rate of breast-feeding, federal health officials commissioned an attention-grabbing advertising campaign a few years ago to convince mothers that their babies faced real health risks if they did not breast-feed. It featured striking photos of insulin syringes and asthma inhalers topped with rubber nipples.
Plans to run these blunt ads infuriated the politically powerful infant formula industry, which hired a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a former top regulatory official to lobby the Health and Human Services Department. Not long afterward, department political appointees toned down the campaign.
The ads ran instead with more friendly images of dandelions and cherry-topped ice cream scoops, to dramatize how breast-feeding could help avert respiratory problems and obesity. In a February 2004 letter, the lobbyists told then-HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson they were "grateful" for his staff's intervention to stop health officials from "scaring expectant mothers into breast-feeding," and asked for help in scaling back more of the ads.
Some senior HHS officials involved in the deliberations over the ad campaign defended the outcome, saying the final ads raised the profile of breast-feeding while following the scientific evidence available then -- which they say did not fully support the claims of the original ad campaign.
But other current and former HHS officials say the muting of the ads was not the only episode in which HHS missed a chance to try to raise the breast-feeding rate. In April, according to officials and documents, the department chose not to promote a comprehensive analysis by its own Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) of multiple studies on breast-feeding, which generally found it was associated with fewer ear and gastrointestinal infections, as well as lower rates of diabetes, leukemia, obesity, asthma and sudden infant death syndrome.
The report did not assert a direct cause and effect, because doing so would require studies in which some women are told not to breast-feed their infants -- a request considered unethical, given the obvious health benefits of the practice.
A top HHS official said that at the time, Suzanne Haynes, an epidemiologist and senior science adviser for the department's Office on Women's Health, argued strongly in favor of promoting the new conclusions in the media and among medical professionals. But her office, which commissioned the report, was specifically instructed by political appointees not to disseminate a news release.
So, "senior officials" at HHS-political appointees, of course-weakened the power of the ads because they believed the science didn't "support" the claims made in the ad. It's only coincidence that infant formula lobby just so happened to want the ads softened as well and quite vigorously told Thompson and his staff of their desires. I'm sure had they not, Thompson and his staff would have changed the ads anyway-in accordance with their own beliefs-after rigorous study of the scientific evidence available. Or not.
See, the thing about breast-feeding is that it is actually better for an infant. So much so that the radicals at the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that women should exclusively breast-feed their infant for at least the first six months of its life, unless they have a compelling health reason not to. Breast-feeding rates are lower in American than in the rest of the developed world, but they are rising steadily. Of course this is a problem for the manufacturers of infant formula who, who see their revenues dropping with each successful public health campaign to raise breast-feeding rates.
Who knows whether stronger ads would be more effective? Perhaps they would be, perhaps not. The problem is all scientific evidence indicates that breast-feeding is better for infants, and political considerations should not be a factor in how soft or strong an ad campaign is. Of course that's completely obvious to you or I; it's only in the hyper-politicized current administration that this fact bears reminding.