WASHINGTON: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the infant formula industry are defending their actions after a news outlet revealed outside influences may have led federal health officials to adjust an ad campaign.
The Washington Post reported on August 31 that the HHS toned down its ads touting the benefits of breastfeeding following outreach from a number of organizations associated with the industry. News of the diluted campaign raised new questions about how big a role political considerations play in promoting public health.
Mardi Mountford, EVP of the industry group International Formula Council (IFC) confirmed that the organization reached out to HHS officials, but said the Post story ignored that a “broad collation of groups” had concerns with this campaign.” And she disputed the implication that the ads, which aired between 2003 and 2005, were changed at the behest of the industry.
Christina Pearson, acting assistant secretary for public affairs at the HHS, also denied the ads were changed because of IFC lobbying. Two lobbyists, both of whom had formerly served in the public sector, were hired by one of the IFC member companies to meet with HHS officials, Mountford confirmed. She declined to say which company hired the men, but they spoke on behalf of the organization in meetings.
Judith Siers-Poisson, associate director at the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), said she has no doubt this is a case of undue influence from the formula industry on issues relating to public health. “You’ve got a problem when public servants immediately turn around and use that position to work on behalf of industry.”
The disclosure that the ads were adjusted comes in the wake of July’s Congressional testimony from former Surgeon General Richard Carmona. Carmona testified that the Bush administration impeded his efforts to promote public health. The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is currently investigating Carmona’s allegations.