Lactivism and reefer madness

Plants 01

No, this is not a post about breastfeeding while stoned.

It’s a post about how hysterical exaggeration undermines campaigns like the War on Drugs and American lactivists’ efforts to promote breastfeeding.

According to Wikipedia:

Reefer Madness … is a 1936 American propaganda exploitation film revolving around the melodramatic events that ensue when high school students are lured by pushers to try marijuana — from a hit and run accident, to manslaughter, suicide, attempted rape, and descent into madness.

The film has become a byword for propaganda that backfires. This snippet of the plot makes it easy to see why the film ultimately accomplished the opposite of what the producers intended:

Mae Coleman and Jack Perry — a couple supposedly “living in sin,” yet sleeping in separate beds as all married couples depicted in films of the era — sell marijuana. Mae prefers to sell marijuana to customers her own age, whereas Jack sells the plant to young teenagers… Young students Bill Harper and Jimmy Lane are invited to Mae and Jack’s apartment … Jimmy takes Bill to the party. There, Jack runs out of reefer. Jimmy, who has a car, drives him to pick up some more. Arriving at Jack’s boss’ “headquarters,” he gets out and Jimmy asks him for a cigarette. Jack gives him a joint. Later, when Jack comes back down and gets into the car, Jimmy drives off dangerously, along the way running over a pedestrian with his car. A few days later, Jack tells Jimmy that the pedestrian died of his injuries. Jack agrees to keep Jimmy’s name out of the case, providing he agrees to “forget he was ever in Mae’s apartment”…

And the hit and run resulting in a pedestrian’s death is one of the least serious consequence of smoking a joint.

The film became a cult classic in the 1970’s when it was purchased and re-released by The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). It was viewed as a comedy by people who used marijuana and recognized that the doleful consequences of marijuana use depicted in the film bore no relationship to the real, rather minimal consequences of marijuana use that viewers knew from personal experience. In other words, by grossly exaggerating the supposedly deleterious effects of marijuana use, the film sent the opposite message: those involved in the “War on Drugs” were lying about marijuana use and it wasn’t harmful at all.

American lactivists are currently running the breastfeeding equivalent of the Reefer Madness campaign. In addition to ignoring the difficulties of breastfeeding, lactivists grossly exaggerate the “risks” of formula feeding. Lactivists overstate the benefits of breastfeeding and fail to acknowledge that almost all the studies that purport to demonstrate those benefits suffer from serious methodological flaws. Lactivists demonize formula feeding using deliberately pejorative terms and suggesting that it should be available by prescription only. Unfortunately, they’ve communicated their hysteria to public officials like Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York who has literally locked up formula as if it were a harmful substance.

But just like the Reefer Madness campaign, the contemporary lactivism campaign is a failure and for a similar reason; it bears no relationship to what we already know, through personal experience, about the purported “risks.” Most adults today WERE formula fed and are, nonetheless, healthy, intelligent and high functioning. No one knows, or has even heard about, a baby who has died as a direct result of formula feeding. Everyone recognizes that if you lined up a group of kindergarten students, no one could tell the difference between those who were formula fed and those who were exclusively breastfed. Moreover, if you lined up a group of the leaders in fields ranging from academia, to government, to entertainment to sports, no one could tell the difference between those who were formula fed and those who were exclusively breastfed.

In their desperation to promote their personal choices, lactivists have created histrionic campaigns that are foolish at best, and utter failures at worst. The claims of lactivists are completely out of line with reality. The “dangers” of not breastfeeding are exaggerated every bit as much as the dangers of marijuana use were exaggerated in Reefer Madness. Overstating the case just engenders distrust of lactivists, not an increase in breastfeeding rates.