The panel that sets public health policy in Massachusetts put on hold yesterday a ban against distribution of gift bags containing infant formula to new mothers in hospital maternity wards.
Governor Mitt Romney, who said he believes that mothers should have a choice on how to feed their infants, had asked the Public Health Council to repeal the prohibition, which was set to go into effect in July. The panel voted unanimously yesterday to suspend its approval of the ban, while directing public health authorities to further review the proposal and report back in three months.
The board's action assures that the controversy over the gift-bag ban will remain alive at least until May, with proponents of breast-feeding and formula makers preparing for further battle.
Advocates of the prohibition maintain that formula giveaways discourage mothers from breast-feeding. Medical studies have shown that breast-fed children are less likely to suffer respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments and that women who nurse have lower rates of breast and ovarian cancer.
Some Public Health Council members voiced continued support for the gift-bag prohibition during their monthly meeting, attended by mothers cradling infants. Members of the board were either appointed directly by Romney or continue to serve at his pleasure.
''Clearly, the department has done a lot of work, and the regulations need to go forward as we have discussed," said council member Phyllis Cudmore, a consumer representative. ''The marketing of infant formula undermines the initiative to nurse. I don't think there's any place in a hospital for corporate America trying to influence a vulnerable population."
During a press conference yesterday, Romney made his first public remarks on the ban.
''I think that the mother should have the right to decide whether she is going to use infant formula or breast-feed," Romney said. ''And allowing her to make that decision is best [done] by letting her have the formula, and if she wants to use it, fine."
The Republican governor described the prohibition as an example of government intrusion into private lives.
''I'm not enthusiastic about the heavy arm of government coming in and saying: We think we know better than the mothers, and we are going to decide for you," Romney said.
The state's commissioner of public health, Paul Cote, accepted blame for the formula controversy, saying that he had failed to alert his superiors of the proposal before the Public Health Council's December vote.
''I feel I didn't do due diligence to make sure this policy was properly vetted," Cote, who was appointed by Romney last year, said in an interview. ''We dropped the ball on this."
Cote said that after the Public Health Council embraced the ban in December, he was contacted by his direct boss, Health and Human Services Secretary Timothy R. Murphy.
''He asked me the question about whether this had properly been discussed with folks, and my answer was, unfortunately, it hadn't," Cote said. ''It was a mistake, the kind we would not like to make too often."
The ban on gift bags containing infant formula would be the first of its kind in the nation and would mark a turning point in a long-running battle between advocates of breast-feeding and formula makers. That fight has played out over decades, with professional organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics voicing strong support for nursing.
A spokeswoman for the International Formula Council, a trade group, said yesterday that members of the group continue to let Massachusetts officials know that they think the gift-bag ban is a bad idea. The council sent a letter to the state government in January urging repeal of the ban.
''We will be reiterating our position that we don't believe that a ban on hospital discharge bags will increase breast-feeding rates," said Marisa Salcines, spokeswoman for the Formula Council.
Healthcare workers and mothers who attended the Public Health Council meeting said they were surprised that the board did not permanently reject the ban, saying that the three-month review gives them more time to make their case that a gift-bag prohibition would enhance the health of babies and mothers.
Some hospitals, such as Boston Medical Center, already ban the corporate gift bags, replacing them with giveaways that include diapers and water bottles, but no formula or coupons for formula.
''The commercial stuff like gift bags -- it's like Pepsi-Cola in the schools," Anne Merewood, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine, said in an interview after the meeting. ''It says, 'Let's target a vulnerable population that doesn't need the product.' "
Stephen Smith can be reached at email@example.com.