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Monday, October 15, 2007

Unspilt MILK

Interesting OPINION piece from Inquirer re: the Supreme Court's decision on the issue of the Milk Code's total ban on advertising. I have to say I agree, in toto, on what this article said...

Last updated 00:38am (Mla time) 10/15/2007

MANILA, Philippines - With nothing less than the future of how we raise our babies at stake, the issue over the Milk Code’s total ban on advertising for breast milk substitutes could not but be highly emotional. The decision of the Supreme Court last week, striking down certain portions of the Code’s revised implementing rules and regulations or RIRR that instituted an absolute ban on infant formula advertisements, could not but inspire strong reactions too.

We understand the deep sense of outrage shared by breastfeeding advocacy groups such as Arugaan, which called the high court’s decision “ridiculous.” Its spokesperson did not mince words in ruing all the unspilt milk: “We are enraged. The future of Filipino children is now for sale. We can’t see any righteousness in this.”

It is unfortunate, albeit inevitable, that questions of right and wrong are tied to questions of legal and illegal. Cases filed before the courts are meant to decide primordially on the legal issues. But parties to a case are often heavily invested in it, to the point where victory or defeat implies judgment on their moral choices.

In the case of the Milk Code, a noble and necessary policy—the promotion of breastfeeding—is all tangled up with society’s mixed feelings about the potency, the ubiquity and the sheer opinion-shaping power of one of the driving forces of capitalism: advertising.

When we discover that billions of pesos are spent by infant formula companies advertising their products and their sometimes rather fantastic claims, and realize that the government’s pro-breastfeeding campaign in contrast is inadequately funded, we can easily understand why advocacy groups find the test of the market unfair. As the Arugaan spokesperson lamented: “What freedom of choice are we talking about when what [the people] have is a misinformed choice?”

The government’s proposed solution, however, was extreme: Ban all infant formula ads. If advocacy groups found the test of the market unfair, then let the Department of Health eliminate the test.

Because the Supreme Court allowed some form of test of the market to continue, precisely for the public to exercise its freedom of choice, advocacy groups felt they had been slighted, their moral positioning on a legal issue opened to question. But all the high court did was to follow where the law led; it found that, in instituting a total ban, the Department of Health overstepped its boundaries and went beyond the scope of the Milk Code.

The Court ruled, in a 12-0 decision written by Justice Alicia Austria-Martinez, that the “national policy of protection, promotion and support of breastfeeding cannot automatically be equated with a total ban on advertising for breast milk substitutes.”

In a separate, concurring opinion, Chief Justice Reynato Puno also warned that the total ban had implications for the practice of free speech. “It ought to be self-evident ... that the advertisement of such products which are strictly informative cuts too deep on free speech.”

In following where the law led, however, the high court found a middle ground where the DOH can pursue its breastfeeding policy and infant formula companies can responsibly offer their products to the public.

What the government can do, the Court said, is regulate the advertising. This will force the DOH to be more stringent and, in the words of a health undersecretary, “more deliberate” in allowing infant formula advertisements.

It was in this light that the United Nations Children’s Fund welcomed the Court’s decision as in fact a victory for breastfeeding. “This signals an end to the unethical advertising claims that [for instance] infant formulas increase intelligence,” a Unicef statement read.

The onus, in other words, has moved from the Supreme Court, which breastfeeding advocates wanted to see issue a once-and-for-all declaration, back to the DOH, where the promotion of breastfeeding and its benefits will remain, eminently, a matter of day-to-day vigilance. Considering the Philippine polity’s need for growing political maturity, the decision may be just what the doctor ordered.