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Hospital gift bag ban put on hold

The panel that sets public health policy in Massachusetts today put on hold a ban against the distribution of gift bags containing infant formula that are routinely distributed to new mothers in hospital maternity wards.

Governor Mitt Romney, who said he believes mothers should have a choice over how to feed their infants, had asked the Public Health Council to repeal the prohibition, which was set to go into effect in July. The panel voted unanimously to suspend its December approval of the ban while directing public health authorities to further review the proposal and report back in three months.

The board's action assures that the controversy over the gift-bag ban will remain alive at least until May, with proponents of breast-feeding and formula makers preparing for further battle.

Advocates of the prohibition maintain that formula giveaways discourage mothers from breast-feeding. Medical studies have shown that breast-fed children are less likely to suffer respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments, and that women who nurse have lower rates of breast and ovarian cancer.

Some Public Health Council members voiced continued support for the formula prohibition during their monthly meeting, attended by mothers cradling infants.

"Clearly, the department has done a lot of work and the regulations need to go forward as we have discussed," said council member Phyllis Cudmore, a consumer representative. "The marketing of infant formula undermines the initiative to nurse. I don't think there's any place in a hospital for corporate America trying to influence a vulnerable population."

During a press conference yesterday, Romney made his first public remarks on the ban.

The governor said the decision of whether to nurse or to give an infant formula should be left to mothers.

"I think that the mother should have the right to decide whether she is going to use infant formula or breastfeed," Romney said. "And allowing her to make that decision is best by letting her have the formula and if she wants to use it, fine."

The Republican governor also described the prohibition as an example of government intrusion into private lives.

"I guess I'm not enthusiastic about the heavy arm of government coming in and saying: We think we know better than the mothers and we are going to decide for you," Romney said. "Let's let the moms decide."

The ban would be the first of its kind in the nation and would mark a turning point in the long-running battle between advocates of breast-feeding and formula makers. That fight has played out over decades on a variety of global and national stages, with professional organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics voicing strong support for nursing.

The state's commissioner of public health, Paul Cote, accepted blame for the formula controversy, saying that he had failed to alert his superiors of the proposal before the Public Health Council's December vote.

"I feel I didn't do due diligence to make sure this policy was properly vetted," Cote, who was appointed by Romney last year, said in an interview. "We dropped the ball on this."

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