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Challenging conglomerates

Patricia Pereira-Sethi

Earlier this year, at the World Health Assembly of the United Nations in Geneva, a resolution to encourage breast-feeding was slated for unanimous approval by the scores of international delegates gathered there. Based on decades of medical research, the proposal stated that mother’s milk is the best for babies, and countries should constrain the misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes. However, the United States delegation, embracing the interests of infant formula manufacturers whose $70 billion industry has seen a drastic drop in sales in recent times, strongly opposed the deliberations. They sought to weaken the motion by removing language that called on governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding”. They also tried to eliminate a passage that encouraged policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products that many experts say have deleterious effects on young children.

When other nations objected, they resorted to veiled threats, according to officials present. Ecuador was the first to find itself in the cross-hairs when it offered to introduce the measure. The Americans were blunt: if Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade procedures and withdraw crucial military aid. The Ecuadorean government bowed out. There was a scramble to find another sponsor, but at least a dozen countries, most of them poor nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America backed off, citing fears of economic retaliation. Patti Rundall, the director of the British NGO Baby Milk Action, remarked: “What happened was tantamount to blackmail, with the U S holding the world hostage in trying to overturn nearly 40 years of consensus on the best way to protect infant and young child health.” Ironically enough, the Russians stepped up to the plate to introduce the proposal — and the Americans retreated. A Russian delegate said his country’s decision was a matter of principle: “We’re not trying to be heroes here, but we feel that it is wrong when a big country tries to push around some very small countries, especially on an issue that is quintessential for our children and the world.”

The intensity of the Trump administration’s opposition to the breast-feeding resolution stunned public health officials and foreign diplomats alike: it stood in marked contrast to the Obama administration, which largely supported WHO’s longstanding policy of encouraging breast-feeding. During the negotiations, American delegates inferred that the United States might cut its contribution to the organisation: Washington is the single largest contributor, providing $845 million, or roughly 15 per cent of its budget.

The confrontation was the latest example of an administration siding with corporate interests on numerous public health and environmental issues against what is in the best interests of the world community. In talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Trump administration has pressed for language that would limit the ability of Canada, Mexico and the United States to put warning labels on junk food and sugary beverages. During the Geneva meeting where the breast-feeding resolution was debated, the United States succeeded in removing statements supporting taxes on soft drinks from a document that advises countries grappling with soaring rates of obesity. They also thwarted an effort aimed at helping poor countries obtain access to lifesaving medicines. In its support of the pharmaceutical industry, the US has consistently resisted calls to modify patent laws as a way of increasing drug availability to the developing world, but health advocates say the current administration has intensified its opposition to disturbing levels.

There is no question today that the world has been turned on its head: evidenced by the harsh swing to the right with a predominance of radical right-wingers as leaders. However, the battle between major multinational corporations and an unsuspecting powerless citizenry is not new. I myself encountered this first-hand during my career as a journalist in New York. While reporting on a major story on breastfeeding for Newsweek magazine, I quoted UNICEF personnel who protested the vigorous manner in which a major baby formula MNC, based in Switzerland, would leave beautifully wrapped welcome gift packages of manufactured baby formula at the bedside of deprived, illiterate mothers who had just delivered their new-borns. Thrilled with the gift pack, which also included embroidered towels and diapers, these women from poor nations would immediately start their babies off on the donated formula. The result: their breasts dried up from the lack of suckling, they used up all the formula and soon had no money to replenish the stock. They were thus forced into feeding their nurslings sugar-water, causing grievous harm to their health and well-being.

No sooner was the article published, the CEO of the MNC called up the owner of the magazine, Katharine Graham, also of the Washington Post (recall the recent movie “The Post” in which Meryl Streep essays the role of Kay Graham), to complain about the “third-world journalist” who had reported for the article. Unfazed, Kay Graham requested that I respond to each of his criticisms. I refuted every single point, backed up with unassailable details and rock-solid medical research.

The dynamic woman stood squarely by the article and her staff. She told the CEO that she believed that the story had much merit and had been researched thoroughly. He threatened to pull out his company’s ads, he also recommended that third world reporters should be curtailed at the magazine because they do not possess the same “values” as Americans. The feisty and gutsy Kay Graham hung tough: “You must do what you must do. I will do what I have to do.” An incredible response from one of the most amazing women I have had the pleasure of interacting with. The company pulled out their ads in a fit of anger, only to return a few months later.

Today I wonder how many publishers and owners of the media would have the courage to stand up squarely to such intimidation — in the manner that the magnificent Katharine Graham did!

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