Australia needs to set tougher regulations on the marketing of infant formula in order to take a global leadership role to support and promote breastfeeding, according to ANU health economist Dr Julie Smith.
Dr Smith, a Fellow at the Australian Centre for Economic Research on Health, is the co-author of a global report on the value of breastfeeding, launched in Australia at Parliament House by ANU in collaboration with the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) and the Parliamentary Friends of Early Childhood.
The IBFAN report, The Need to Invest in Babies, calls for governments and international organisations to invest in breastfeeding protection, promotion and support in order to prevent the deaths of millions of babies around the world from diarrhea and pneumonia, and to reduce population risk for diabetes, hypertension, cancer and cardiac diseases.
"We know that breastfeeding is rapidly diminishing in some countries in our region as breast milk substitutes are heavily promoted to women. In addition, many working women have no maternity leave, and no option to breastfeed. The impact of that is an increase in maternal and child death, and increased long-term burden on health systems," said Dr Smith.
"Ten years ago, The Lancet published research that found a million infants and young children die each year because they are deprived of the right milk. To stop further declines and soaring future health costs, we need to step up as a global citizen - and this report recommends the policies that will make a difference."
Dr Smith said it was crucial that Australia set standards domestically that maintain its public health credibility and reputation as an exporter.
"Australia must look closely at our impact as a major exporter of breast milk substitutes and an aid donor in the region.
"By supporting market expansion and unconstrained export of infant formula to China and our neighbours in Asia, we are normalising formula feeding where it is not usual, and at the same time, undermining the efforts of NGOs and women's groups to provide policy support for women to breastfeed.
"In Australia in recent years we've made good progress with regards to breastfeeding policy. A bipartisan commitment to paid maternity leave, sex discrimination laws that explicitly address discrimination against breastfeeding women in employment, and programs such as the Australian Breastfeeding Association's Breastfeeding Friendly Workplaces all go some way to supporting mothers to breastfeed and reducing future health costs.
"It's now time for Australia to also step up and look at how we can better support mothers in our region to breastfeed, as well as here at home."
The full report can be downloaded at www.acerh.edu.au