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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Notes from the Milk Monster Bill Hearing

Tuesday, 4 September 2012 was a big day because it was the day when the Joint Committee of Health and Trade was going to vote on the draft substitute bill - or the Milk Monster Bill.  My previous 2-part posts on Decoding the Monster Bill referred to the May 2012 draft.  Because of the uproar raised, the Technical Working Group quickly released a draft substitute bill on July 2012 which brought back the paid lactation breaks and mandatory bilingual labels in Filipino and English.  Refer to the picture below for a quick comparison of the changes proposed by the Milk Monster Bill.  If you haven't yet, do like the Facebook Page so you will be updated about the campaign.
click me to enlarge
A very happy surprise occurred when Cong. Anna York Bondoc showed up during the hearing.  Rep. Anna was the author of House Bill No. 3396 (along with Rep. Philip Pichay who was also at the hearing) which is considered the "good bill".  During her maternity leave (she was on bed rest due to a delicate pregnancy), the Technical Working Group met twice and consolidated her bill with the 3 other breastfeeding bills, resulting in the Milk Monster Bill.  She shared how she received nasty texts while on her hospital bed and she was surprised and disappointed about how her bill turned out.  She had just given birth about 1 week before the hearing but realized how important her presence will be.

Here is a summary of the hearing posted on the Facebook Page:
Yesterday, Sept 4, we celebrated a small victory. Breastfeeding advocates, defenders and champions blocked the Monster Bill from being railroaded through the joint Health and Trade Committee hearing. On one side, Rep. Rufus Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro 2nd district and company, arguing vehemently for "informed choice" –his definition of advertising-- and 0-6months limitation on advertising. On the other side, breastfeeding champion Rep. Anna York- Bondoc of Pampanga, who was very strong and vocal in defending breastfeeding against the underhanded tactics of the multinational milk companies, despite giving birth via CS only a week ago after a difficult pregnancy, together with Akbayan Party List Rep. Walden Bello, Rep. Teddy Casino, Rep. Philip Pichay, Gabriela Party List headed by Rep. Emmi De Jesus and Rep. Luz Ilagan, Makabayan Coalition of 5 party lists, Rep. Lani Mercado-Revilla, Rep. Lucy Torres-Gomez, --the latter two retracted their support for the Monster Bill and recommended advertising ban for 0-36 months-- UNICEF, DOH, Save the Babies Coalition, Gabriela Women’s Group, Coalition of various medical associations, and other breastfeeding advocate groups. The meeting ended in suspended animation with Rep. Rodriguez and company relenting to advertising ban for 0-12 months while advocates group pushing for 0-24months. The joint committee moved to set another hearing to vote on amendments to the Monster Bill. Our campaign continues... KILL THE BILL!
Meanwhile, Rep. Pichay shared his experiences as a former employee of a multinational milk company.  He shared how formula milk was manufactured - using artificial ingredients.  More importantly, he shared a very important tidbit about balancing of interests.  Cong. Rufus refused to increase the advertising ban to 36 months because there needs to be a "balance of interests".  This was also the position of Cong. Tomas Apacible - Chairman of the Committee on Trade.  A similar refrain can be seen in Cong. Lani Mercado's position paper:
click me to enlarge
Cong. Philip Pichay emphasized that it is impossible to talk about balancing of interests when at one end, we have multinationals who are able to plan marketing strategies, etc. and at the other end, we have babies who have no choice in whatever milk is given to them.  At the proposed ban of 6 months, the balance is severely skewed in favor of the milk companies.  With advertising bans until 36 months, the balance is somewhat leveled.  Cong. Pichay then discussed how much the incremental sales will increase once milk companies can freely advertise milk starting 12 months.  As emphasized by IBFAN, "unregulated promotion of follow-on formula and growing up milk will help sales of formula products that are currently strictly held in check by the Milk Code."

The Makabayan Coalition also shared their thoughts and unanimously withdrew their support from the bill.  Rep. Teddy Casino referred to the chart pasted above and questioned Department of Health's Eric Tayag and was able to elicit a statement that the DOH wants the ban to be at 36 months.  Meanwhile, Rep. Neri Colmenares emphasized that the Milk Monster Bill was the EPAL of the milk companies.

An interesting point that Rep. Walden Bello raised was why IPNAP joined the Joint Technical Working Group meetings on the proposed breastfeeding bill.  In fact, if you see the photo in my tweet below, you can see how cozy the IPNAP representative (the one in the suit) was - even being served coffee on the main table - where only Representatives and Congress staff were allowed to sit.
IPNAP rep in the suit, enjoying his coffee
Under the RIRR of the Milk Code (specifically Sec. 4(i) - Declaration of Principles), "[m]ilk companies, and their representatives, should not form part of any policymaking body or entity in relation to the advancement of breastfeeding."  Yet, should I still be surprised that IPNAP was represented in the TWG meetings and committee hearings?
The hearing ended with no vote taken.  Because of the the arguments of Rep. Bondoc, the Makabayan Coalition and the reversal of stance of Rep. Lani Revilla and Rep. Lucy T. Gomez, Cong. Anthony Golez (yes, another Milk Monster Bill supporter) moved for the postponement of the vote on the draft substitute bill.  Instead, amendments will be submitted and the committee will vote on the bill provision per provision.

This is still going to be one long and difficult battle!

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