The Corner


The Washington Post reports on the latest congressional investigation:

In an attempt to raise the nation’s historically low rate of breast-feeding, federal health officials commissioned an attention-grabbing advertising campaign a few years ago to convince mothers that their babies faced real health risks if they did not breast-feed. It featured striking photos of insulin syringes and asthma inhalers topped with rubber nipples.

Plans to run these blunt ads infuriated the politically powerful infant formula industry, which hired a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a former top regulatory official to lobby the Health and Human Services Department. Not long afterward, department political appointees toned down the campaign.

I even support the aims of this ad campaign, but I don’t understand how it ever became the federal government’s job to tell women to breastfeed. More:

The milder campaign HHS eventually used had no discernible impact on the nation’s breast-feeding rate, which lags behind the rate in many European countries.

Question: do government-funded public service announcements ever have a discernible impact on people’s behavior? If we stopped all government-funded television, print and radio ads tomorrow, would anyone even notice? I never did any drugs, but it certainly wasn’t because of “Just Say No,” it was because of my parents and my religion. I can’t really remember ads about anything else. Can anyone else? Did it change the way you behaved?

When it comes to the health benefits of breastfeeding, isn’t this something universities can produce studies about, and then get reporters from CNN, FNC, and your local TV news team to spread the word? Can’t health magazines and women’s magazines do a much better job, with a profit motive, of alerting women to the dangers of not breastfeeding?

Frankly, the lesson I take from this episode is that the government is an unreliable tool for informing people about health risks. The private instruments of the media are (we like to think, anyway) far less susceptible than the government to lobbying by major corporations and special interests, all of whom employ Washington lobbyists of every political stripe, and any of whom can get their way under any Congress and any administration when it comes down to it.

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