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Romney overhauls panel that backed ban on baby formula giveaways

BOSTON --Gov. Mitt Romney has removed members of the state's Public Health Council who wanted to ban the giving away of infant formula at maternity wards, according to a published report Saturday.

The council had approved what was believed to have been a first-in-the-nation ban on the distribution of gift diaper bags with brand name baby formula and other goodies to new mothers.

It was championed by advocates as a way to promote breast-feeding but before the ban took effect, Romney in February asked the panel to reverse its earlier ruling. The Republican governor said mothers shouldn't be denied the option of formula.

The nine-member council reversed its ruling, but ordered the Department of Public Health to spend three months reviewing the case. The report is due on Tuesday.

Phyllis Cudmore, one of the council members removed by Romney, told The Boston Globe that she wanted to remain.

"I think the changes were political," she said. "I'm disappointed not to be part of the process now."

Cudmore was replaced in April. On Friday, Romney replaced members Janet Slemenda and Manthala George Jr.

Although it never barred hospitals from giving out free formula, the ban would have ended a longtime marketing practice by formula companies that breast-feeding advocates said tried to lure new moms to a less healthy choice, with an implied hospital endorsement.

Breast-feeding activists said it protected new mothers from being lured into relying on formula when the healthiest option is their own breast milk.

"I think the governor is clearly illustrating that he is more interested in protecting the pharmaceutical industry than in standing up for the children and mothers of Massachusetts," Dr. Melissa Bartick, chairwoman of the Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition, told the Globe.

Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said changes were made because the members' terms had expired. He said it's "common practice for the governor to replace them and give new people a chance to perform public service."

It's also common for members to keep serving, even after their terms expire. Slemenda's term had expired in 1999, for example, the newspaper reported.

Newly appointed are Michael C. Hanson, who is a former state banking commissioner in the Weld administration, lawyer Jennifer Nassour, and former General Electric executive Soo J. Kim.

Hanson said Romney's representatives didn't ask him his opinion about the ban, while Nassour said she was "keep an open mind." The Globe said Kim couldn't be reached for comment.

According to 2004 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 74 percent of Massachusetts mothers breast-feed, but only 39 percent are still breast-feeding when the baby is 6 months old, below the federal goal of 50 percent. Nationally, about 36 percent of mothers breast-feed at 6 months.

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