Doctors are calling on the federal government to ban the promotion of baby formula, fearing a drop in breastfeeding rates if manufacturers are allowed to oversee their own marketing practices.
The move by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians follows Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash's decision to scrap an independent panel that aimed to ensure the proper use of breast milk substitutes.
''We're very concerned that if there's no independent oversight, then we need legislation to block advertising of infant formula,'' the president of the college's paediatric and child health division, Susan Moloney, said.
She said a ban on marketing, free sampling, gifts to health workers, and pharmacy and supermarket promotion of formula for babies less than a year old would reflect the World Health Organisation's International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, which has been adopted by more than 80 countries.
''I don't think we've had a government brave enough to legislate to comply with WHO code,'' she said. ''It's something easy and sends a strong message that breastfeeding is good for mothers, babies and the community.''
Without an independent panel to monitor complaints and advertising, the Infant Formula Council, which represents more than 95 per cent of the infant formula industry in Australia, has offered to work with the government to help monitor manufacturers.
But Associate Professor Moloney said industry-led and funded oversight would be ''inappropriate'' and would risk undermining breastfeeding because companies could act to protect their own interests.
Despite the current voluntary agreement prohibiting print and television advertising, she said tougher controls would prevent loopholes for companies to advertise in supermarket catalogues and pharmacies.
''We know there are always parents who need to formula feed but we have to make sure breastfeeding is acceptable in our community. Breastfed infants have improved neuro-developmental outcomes and a lower incidence of infections, obesity and diabetes."
A spokesman for Ms Nash, who was censured in Parliament earlier this month over her former chief of staff's links to the junk food industry, said awareness, a drop in complaints, and industry compliance meant the independent panel was no longer required.
Australian Breastfeeding Association chief executive Rachel Fuller said she would ''absolutely'' support implementing the WHO code in full: ''It's not about saying no to formula, but giving parents information without subjecting them to marketing hype.''
She said Australian breastfeeding rates were falling below the National Health and Medical Research Council recommendations - only 39 per cent of babies were solely breastfed up to the age of three months.
Bec Sendt, who is breastfeeding Josie, aged six months, said women would be less likely to abandon breastfeeding if there was strong support from health workers, family and friends.
''For women who don't grow up seeing other women breastfeed, it can be very foreign,'' she said.