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More meddling with health

DURING President Bush's first term, officials in the Department of Health and Human Services prepared a hard-hitting ad campaign on the health risks faced by babies whose mothers do not breast-feed. Before the ads began, however, representatives of the infant formula industry prevailed on the department to tone down the message.

The ads aired, but whatever effect they might have had was so faint that the breast-feeding rate actually declined in the period during and after the campaign. Congress, which has been investigating the incident, should insist that the administration run the original ads.

The watered-down ad campaign is only one example of political interference in public-health policy - a pattern that Bush's former surgeon general, Dr. Richard Carmona, de plored when he resigned this spring. When Susan Wood, head of women's health issues at the Food and Drug Administration, quit that agency in 2005, she pointed to the political pressure that slowed FDA approval of an over-the-counter morning-after contraceptive. Another instance of politics trumping public health was the downplaying in April of a government analysis of studies showing the health benefits of breast-feeding. According to the Washington Post, administration officials specifically instructed HHS's Office on Women's Health not to issue a press release on the analysis.

As a result, the public was left in the dark on data showing a link between breast-feeding and lower rates of ear and gastrointestinal infections, diabetes, leukemia, obesity, asthma, and sudden infant death syndrome.

The World Health Organization recommends that mothers breast-feed exclusively for at least the first six months. In 2006, 63.6 percent of US women started breast-feeding while they were in the hospital, and after six months just 30 percent were doing any at all.

The ad agency that was helping HHS prepare the original ads found in focus groups that simply explaining the positives of nursing was not enough - the ads had to demonstrate the harmful effects on children of not being breast-fed. When formula industry officials persuaded HHS not to use the more aggressive ads, the ad agency quit.

A spokesman for the International Formula Council, Mardi Mountford, says that a better way to improve breast-feeding rates than a dramatic ad campaign would be to persuade more employers to make breast-pumping and milk storage more convenient for working mothers, many of whom stop breast-feeding when they return to the workplace. That would certainly help, but a tough ad campaign would also motivate many new mothers to start in the first place. Congress should tell the administration to keep politics out of its health decisions and bring back ads that could get results.

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