Should Hospitals Stop Giving Out Free Samples Of Baby Formula To New Moms?

It can be hard to turn your nose up at anything that’s offered for free. But are hospitals doing more harm than good when they give out free samples of brand-name baby formula to mothers of newborn babies?

The folks at Public Citizen have fired off letters to more than 2,600 hospitals around the country, urging them to stop including these samples in new mothers’ discharge bags, calling it unethical and a violation of good public health policy.

A number of hospitals in the U.S. have already stopped handing out the samples and the practice has been stopped altogether in Rhode Island, but around 66% of hospitals are still making the freebies available to new moms.

There are numerous studies claiming that it’s generally best for a newborn to breastfeed for the first six months, so child health advocates claim that giving out the samples encourages mothers to use formula rather than nurse. Public Citizen points to a recent report showing that there are higher rates of breastfeeding in states where more hospitals had eliminated the distribution of formula samples.

Of particular concern to Consumerist is the cost issue. Public Citizen claims that while the samples might be free, the cost of formula-feeding a newborn can range anywhere from $800 to $2,800 a year. And since most of these free samples are for more expensive brand names — and since a number of new moms end up continuing to use whichever brand they were given at discharge — these freebies could end up being a huge drain on parents’ paychecks.

“When hospitals distribute formula samples, they are engaging in marketing for major pharmaceutical and food companies,” Elizabeth Ben-Ishai, campaign coordinator for Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert project. “Many hospitals are actively trying to promote breastfeeding in their obstetrics units. But by continuing to allow marketing of infant formula in their facilities, they are undermining their own efforts.”

To that end, Public Citizen has started a petition asking the makers of big-name baby formulas like Enfamil, Gerber, and Similac, to put an end to the free-sampling.

Last year, Disney came under fire for using maternity ward discharge bags as an opportunity to introduce new moms to the wonderful world of Disney-related products.