Massachusetts Hospitals Ban Free Baby Formula Gift Bags 7 Years After Mitt Romney Said No

Last week, Massachusetts became the second state in which hospitals have voluntarily banned sending new mothers home with free infant formula goody bags. Hospitals in Rhode Island were the first to end the practice, in November.

The goal is to encourage mothers to breastfeed rather than bottle-feed. Research has shown that when hospitals gives moms free formula, they’re likely to start bottle-feeding their infants sooner than experts recommend. A 2008 study concluded, "Women who received these packs were more likely to exclusively breastfeed for fewer than 10 weeks than were women who had not received the packs."

The American Academy of Pediatrics, health officials and doctors agree that "breast is best," and the AAP recommends that mothers should exclusively breastfeed for at least their babies' first six months.

Time Healthland reported that breastfeeding advocates planned to gather Wednesday at the Massachusetts State House to celebrate their victory and noted that the state Department of Public Health had earlier tried to ban free formula gift bags.

When the department attempted to implement its rule in December 2005, none other than then-Gov. Mitt Romney rescinded the ban. At the time, his spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, told the Boston Globe that Romney believed it should be up to each individual mother whether she chose to accept the formula. Fehrnstrom said:

"We're not disputing the health benefits of breast-feeding, but we think that new mothers should make that choice. If they choose to bottle-feed, they should be supported in that decision."

Some were skeptical of Romney’s motives then, and as he aims to become our next president, breastfeeding advocates are raising the issue all over again. They're asking whether Romney was truly concerned about mothers or just trying to please Bristol-Myers Squibb, the makers of the baby formula Enfamil.

In 2006, Healthland reported, Romney replaced three Public Health Council members who were unhappy with his decision to overturn the gift-bag ban. A few days later, Bristol-Myers Squibb announced its plan to build a pharmaceutical plant in Massachusetts.

Romney’s press team failed to respond to requests for comment, Healthland wrote.

Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, which is part of an initiative urging hospitals to stop giving away formula, argues that hospitals are simply serving as marketers for formula companies. As for the formula companies, "they are looking for profits, and they'll do what they can get away with,” Weissman wrote in an April HuffPost blog.

Marsha Walker, co-chairwoman of Ban the Bags, a Boston-based campaign launched after Romney overturned the health department's efforts in 2006, agrees that formula gift bags are strictly about marketing. "When hospitals give these out, it looks like an endorsement of a commercial product," she told the Associated Press in November.

A number of obstacles -– physical, financial and so on -- can hinder moms from breastfeeding. The International Formula Council, the industry's trade group, contends that most mothers want to receive the free formula, according to a Reuters story in April. "We can't forget that some moms, even though they plan to breastfeed, they either can't or they decide not to," said Mardi Mountford, the council's executive vice president.

Nonetheless, breastfeeding supporters maintain that gifting moms with free formula sends the wrong message about what's best for their new babies. Mitzi Rose, a mother from Rochester, N.Y., told Weissman that although she was adamant about breastfeeding, she could "see how the presence of a 'sample' of formula can be appealing to an exhausted and discouraged new mom."

In April, Public Citizen, backed by "dozens of consumer and health organizations," sent a letter to more than 2,600 hospitals asking them to stop handing out free formula samples, Reuters reported. Since then, Ban the Bags has counted more than 600 hospitals that have done away with formula-filled tote bags. As Healthland noted, though, that’s "just a fraction of the nation's maternity hospitals."

Moreover, the Boston Globe wrote, "Whether the voluntary bans will have a significant impact on long-term breast-feeding rates remains to be seen." Just last month, researchers found that only 32 percent of new mothers meet their breastfeeding goals.