What's Behind The U.S. Opposition To Pro-Breastfeeding Language

Jul 9, 2018
Originally published on July 9, 2018 7:34 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Strong-arm tactics between countries - that's nothing new when it comes to diplomacy. But strong-arm tactics over a resolution to promote breastfeeding, with the U.S. making trade threats about it - that is a little different. Yesterday, The New York Times reported on some tense moments this spring at the World Health Assembly in Geneva. Andrew Jacobs covers global health for The New York Times and joins us now to talk about how the deliberations went down. Welcome.

ANDREW JACOBS: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So let's just start with the proposed resolution. What were the words the U.S. was fighting so hard about?

JACOBS: They were trying to remove language that asked for the WHO to promote and protect breastfeeding around the world, especially in developing countries, and also limit the promotion of infant formula and other products that are given to young children under 2 years old - to get them to stop promoting that in, as they call it, an inappropriate way in hospitals when mothers give birth.

CHANG: OK, and what did the U.S. do to try to change this resolution? What was the change they were asking for?

JACOBS: Well, they started out by trying to block the resolution or trying to get them to drop it entirely. And to do that, they went to the country that was introducing it, which was Ecuador, and threatened them with trade sanctions and the withdrawal of some military aid.

CHANG: Withdrawal of military aid as well?

JACOBS: Yes.

CHANG: And did Ecuador back down immediately?

JACOBS: They did. They did within a day, and then the U.S. went to other countries that were thinking of introducing the measure and threatened them as well. And in the end, it was Russia, a country not particularly known for its leadership on public health issues, that stepped in and introduced the measure.

CHANG: And when Russia stepped in, did the U.S. back off?

JACOBS: They did not. They introduced their own competing resolution, which is fairly unheard of at the WHO. And that required two days of negotiations with these two different resolutions, going back-and-forth, changing the wording. And this sort of U.S. delegation was much, much larger than the other countries. Most countries have one representative. The U.S. had about a half-dozen.

CHANG: (Laughter).

JACOBS: And so they essentially wore down the other participants. In the end, though, it was largely unsuccessful. They sort of tinkered with some of the wording, but they failed to sort of block it entirely.

CHANG: Why was the U.S. delegation so dug in on this issue? What was going on here?

JACOBS: Well, that's something I'm not entirely sure. No one's sure of the mechanics - the dynamics. But it seems that it was industry groups that were behind the scenes pushing this.

CHANG: Industry for baby products - baby formula products.

JACOBS: Right, baby formula products and baby food products. Correct.

CHANG: So all of this went down in May in Geneva. How did you first hear about this?

JACOBS: I heard about it from some advocates who were at the meeting right after the meeting. So it took a while to sort of get the participants to talk about it. There was a lot of fear of retaliation from the U.S., so it took a while to kind of coax them to talk about it.

CHANG: What countries' delegates first approached you?

JACOBS: Actually it was the Brazilian delegate that approached me, but I've talked to several other countries - African, Latin American countries who were part of that group. And they also talked about it.

CHANG: I feel like I don't hear a lot about drama at the World Health Assembly. How unusual is a showdown like this?

JACOBS: From people I spoke to, this is very unusual. There's always tension over these breastfeeding resolutions because industry is trying to obviously promote their products, and health advocates are trying to limit them. But this is the first time - that anyone can remember - that there were actual threats made against the countries that were proposing the resolution. So this was quite shocking for a lot of these career diplomats.

CHANG: Andrew Jacobs, global health reporter for The New York Times, thanks very much.

JACOBS: Thanks for having me.

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