Governor Mitt Romney wants new mothers in Massachusetts to continue receiving traditional parting gifts when they leave the maternity ward: a bag filled with infant formula, coupons, and other goodies paid for by the formula companies.
In December, the state Department of Public Health decided to restrict the gift bags, believed to be the first effort in the nation to limit the giveaways, which the agency said encouraged mothers to give up on breast-feeding.
But Tuesday, the department will consider a request by the governor to rescind the ban on formula in the gift bags.
''We're not disputing the health benefits of breast-feeding, but we think that new mothers should make that choice," Romney's spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, said yesterday. ''If they choose to bottle-feed, they should be supported in that decision."
Medical studies have shown that breast-fed children are less likely to suffer gastrointestinal illnesses, respiratory ailments, and ear infections. Research has also demonstrated that women who nurse have lower rates of breast and ovarian cancer and may reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
The governor's request must be formally approved at a meeting Tuesday of the Public Health Council, an appointed board that must approve the policies of the Department of Public Health. The chairman of the council is the state's public health commissioner, Paul Cote, a Romney appointee.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health said that the agency and governor ''decided that there needs to be a broader policy discussion around this issue" and that ''new mothers will continue to be able to receive free formula for their babies at hospitals."
The decision to reverse course on the ban constitutes a significant backtracking by the Department of Public Health, which since the late 1980s has adopted increasingly stringent rules to support breast-feeding.
The cochairman of the Joint Committee on Public Health, Representative Peter J. Koutoujian, said the governor's move demonstrates a lack of trust in the public health authorities he appointed. ''This is something where the governor should not be stepping over his own public health commission," said Koutoujian, a Waltham Democrat. ''Certainly, marketing is something about which I've been concerned for many years. This is the perfect instance of marketing from literally cradle to grave."
The decision on infant formula marks the third time in two months that Romney's office has inserted itself into policy-making at the Department of Public Health.
In December, the administration ordered the agency to require all hospitals to provide emergency contraception. Initially, Romney had supported the agency's decision to allow private hospitals to opt out of a requirement to provide the morning-after pill if they had moral or religious objections.
And the administration used the public health agency to introduce in January a new abstinence education curriculum in Massachusetts schools.
Champions of the ban on gift-bag giveaways said that allowing companies to peddle their products on maternity wards poses a risk to the health of mothers and newborns.
''This has nothing to do with freedom of choice; of course, women are free to feed their babies however they would like," said Dr. Melissa Bartick, chairwoman of the Massachusetts Breast-feeding Coalition. ''What the marketing does is undermine that choice by setting them up for breast-feeding failure."
The governor's office said it had received three phone calls and three letters opposing the ban and one e-mail in favor of it. One of the letters in opposition came from an industry coalition, the International Formula Council.
In a statement released last night, the Atlanta-based trade group called Romney's move ''sound public health policy" and said that ''mothers should be allowed full access to all available information on infant feeding options." Fehrnstrom said there had been no meetings between the governor's office and formula makers.
Bartick said breast-feeding advocates could see no see social agenda evident in Romney's move.
''Corporate interest is really the only political constituency here," said the Cambridge internist.
The Massachusetts Hospital Association has generally been supportive of a ban on gift-bag promotions by formula companies, said Paul Wingle, spokesman for the hospital confederation. Some medical centers in the state adopted the limits before the Department of Public Health action.
''Most clinicians are saying breast milk is the first and best option," Wingle said. ''So if on the other hand, they're giving mothers incentives to try formula, there are crossed signals in that practice."
Stephen Smith can be reached at email@example.com.