By Beh Lih Yi
KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thailand is moving to ban advertisements for infant milk formula in a bid hailed as a major step for a country which has one of the world's lowest breastfeeding rates but experts called for greater action to protect mothers' rights to do so.
The ban will come into force next month and bans marketing promotion of infant formula in "both direct and indirect ways", health official Puangpen Chanprasert told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The United Nations' children agency UNICEF welcomed the move, which it said will also ban all forms of promotion of breastmilk substitutes including the distribution of free samples at hospitals.
"For Thailand, this is a major step in protecting and promoting breastfeeding and ensuring that children get the best possible start in life," UNICEF said.
The World Health Organization recommends that babies be breastfed exclusively for their first six months then have a diet of breast milk and other food until they are two years old.
Thailand has one of the world's lowest rates of exclusive breastfeeding at 12.3 percent, according to a 2016 global database by UNICEF.
The U.N. agency said Thai mothers faced "a number of obstacles" to breastfeeding including aggressive marketing of baby formula and their return to work after three months of maternity leave.
It called for more support to working mothers including allowing them fully-paid maternity leave, flexible work hours and access to a workplace lactation room.
"We need to make breastfeeding both the right choice and the easy choice," UNICEF said.
A U.N.-backed study this month showed no country does enough to help mothers breastfeed their babies for the recommended six months, as it urged governments to clamp down on baby-formula marketing and pass laws for paid maternity leave.
Experts said investing in breastfeeding, which helps prevent infant deaths and boosts physical development and IQ, could save hundreds of thousands of children's lives and bring major economic benefits.
Campaigners say women in Asia face widespread harassment for breastfeeding in public although a poll of over 9,000 people in May showed most people in the region supported the practice to be protected by law. (Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)