Hospital Formula Sampling: What You Can Do

It’s an exciting time for breastfeeding advocacy. Last week, Public Citizen and the United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) held a joint webinar, “Take Action to Keep Formula Marketing Out of Health Care Facilities,” and it was packed full of inspiration and practical tips for citizen action.

Formula “discharge bags,” or formula sampling to new mothers in hospitals, has been used effectively for over 40 years; it implies an endorsement by the hospital. According to Marsha Walker of the USBC and Ban the Bags, those who receive these “bags” breastfeed for shorter durations, are less likely to breastfeed exclusively, and use the most expensive brands — the brands that they have sampled — when they do use formula.

Public Citizen has been working on a campaign to end formula sampling in hospitals since the spring. They sent a letter co-signed by 100 organizations to 2600 hospitals around the US.  In addition, they started a petition, now signed by 15,000 people, targeting the top three formula makers. And, they are appealing to health care providers to sign a pledge to keep their offices free of formula marketing.

Public Citizen has been inspired by the work of Ban the Bags, the national organization started by Marsha Walker, which grew out of the efforts of the Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition to stop formula sampling in Massachusetts hospitals. The state passed a ban on formula sampling in hospitals in 2005, though it was undermined by then governor Mitt Romney.

Walker announced on the webinar that as of July 1, 2012 all 49 Massachusetts hospitals are voluntarily bag free and the state joins Rhode Island with its seven hospitals as one of two bag-free states. Seventeen hospitals in Portland, Oregon are also bag free. According to Walker, what worked in Massachusetts this time was peer pressure, the Hall of Shame and articulating that formula marketing is not part of the mission of a hospital.


The next goal for the campaign to get formula sampling out of hospitals is to follow up on the 2600 letters that Public Citizen sent to the hospitals; most have not responded. This is where you can help.

Public Citizen has step-by-step instructions on how you can follow up with your local hospital. These include reading the Public Citizen letter, identifying who to talk to at your hospital, preparing a script, handling rebuttal, and taking notes of the call. On the webinar, Elizabeth Ben-Ishai of Public Citizen, suggested to be patient, polite and firm. “Don’t give up,” she said.

See if your local hospital is on the list.

For further help, Ban the Bags offers an extensive Tool Kit that includes: Anticipating Formula Industry Strategies and Countering Them, Action Ideas, Study Abstracts about formula sampling and breastfeeding, Fact Sheet on Formula Marketing in Hospitals, Massachusetts Breastfeeding Report Card (based on percentage of breastfeeding at discharge), sample letters, promotional materials, and healthcare regulations.

There may be hospitals on the Public Citizen list that have already banned the bags. Check the Bag-Free Hospitals list, though it is not exhaustive. If you find that the hospital in your area has already banned the bags, congratulate them and encourage them to be listed on the Ban the Bags site, which will verify their compliance.

Both Marsha Walker and Elizabeth Ben-Ishai are available to help with questions, stumbling blocks, or to plan specific activities. Public Citizen has a Communications Office that can help with media outreach. Call 202-588-1000 and ask for the Communications Department.


You could also reach out to obstetricians, pediatricians, family doctors and midwives in your area as well as to state and national organizations. Or, you could write an Op-Ed or letter to the editor for your local newspaper.

As Marsha Walker asked at the webinar: Which will be the next bag-free state? Will it be your state? You can really make a difference now. Please share your ideas, plans and successes with us here. And, thank you for helping mothers and babies.

Peggy O’Mara  (101 Posts)

Peggy O’Mara founded in 1995 and is currently its editor-in chief. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has lectured and conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League International, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

This entry was posted
on Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012 at 8:44 AM and is filed under Breastfeeding.
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

Both comments and pings are currently closed.



2 thoughts on “Hospital Formula Sampling: What You Can Do”

  1. Don’t forget the great news that the New York City Department of Health recently persuaded 23 of 40 hospitals to stop distributing formula. In May 2009, I gave birth at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan, where the drawer under my baby’s bassinet was filled with formula, and I was given a formula-filled goody bag when I went home. I gave birth at Beth Israel again in mid-June of this year, and am happy to announce that absolutely no formula was offered to me during my stay. I applaud the hospital for agreeing to the change in policy.

  2. I gave birth at home for the second time this past March, and was quite surprised to receive formula samples in the mail. I wrote a letter to Enfamil, the company sending the samples, but I’m still wondering where they got my information, was it the insurance company, the hospital where I pre-registered in case of a transfer, or the maternity store where I bought a pair of jeans?

    I was astounded to receive two cans of new-born formula, and then a package of little samples for the different stages. Our whole family tasted it just to see, and oh boy was it gross, with a weird metallic vitamin after-taste, the dog liked it ok. If I had breastfeeding difficulties that certainly would not be the formula I would turn to.

    Dogging aside, I have had it in the back of my mind that I’d like to do more to follow up on this. You’ve inspired me to make a few phone calls and figure out where the formula companies got my information.

    Thank you,

    Sarah Gardon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *