Boycotts do work, but asking a comic to join in this one is like trying to recruit a Teletubby to the Zapatistas

Any activist or campaigner should be able to tell you about the problems of powdered baby milk. For a start, unscrupulous drug dealers* keep cutting cocaine with infant formula, which results in extremely healthy, nutritionally enriched nostrils and a good night's sleep. Which might explain why Keith Richards is still alive. At certain times in his life, he has probably been doing a pint of infant formula a day. This, when combined with sheep's blood transfusions at private Swiss clinics, is bound to have an adverse effect on his intake of Jack Daniel's. For Nestle and other baby milk manufacturers, it is ironic that the use of their products in the drugs trade is so benign compared to the way they are used in the developing world.

After the links were established between infant mortality and the misuse of baby milk formula, the World Health Organisation established a code of practice for the manufacturers. This was the least they could do, considering that the WHO itself states that, if the downward trend in breastfeeding were reversed, a million infant lives could be saved each year. Today, the boycott of Nestle products, in protest against the company's marketing practices, is the longest-running boycott in the world. And because Perrier is owned by Nestle, it was inevitable that, sooner or later, activists would target the Perrier Award for Comedy at the Edinburgh Festival. For the past three weeks, this story has rumbled gently on in the broadsheets.

Asking comics to boycott the award is an unenviable task. Frankly, you would have more luck recruiting the Teletubbies to the Zapatistas (though Tinky Winky would be instantly recognisable, even in a balaclava). I was nominated for the award a few years ago; it has high prestige and I understand why comics want to win it. But I have spoken to doctors working in Pakistan who are furious at the effects of baby milk on infant health in their country, as well as to health officials in Malawi and Zimbabwe, one of whom compared Nestle's actions to "ethnic cleansing". Although some comics have been sympathetic to the issue, others have shown all the political sophistication of Mike Gatting, who, as he led a cricket team to South Africa during the apartheid years, stated that boycotts have no effect.

Liberals and the left have nearly always supported consumer boycotts; the right believes them to be counter-productive unless they involve anything French or German, in which case we are giving the Krauts/Frogs a bloody nose and reliving the spirit of the Blitz. There are exceptions: in the mid-1980s, the Revolutionary Communist Party believed that there should be no sanctions on the South African apartheid regime, as sanctions would not advance a revolutionary situation. I had visions of RCP activists gleefully eating Cape apples during their meetings, safe in the knowledge that the more the workers were oppressed, the sooner they would overthrow the bourgeoisie.

On the other hand, it is just as easy to conjure up images of well-meaning liberals wandering around the supermarket, ticking off the goods they shouldn't purchase and cupping their ears for the sound of multinationals falling to their knees. However, it is worth remembering that the threat of boycotts of GM foods forced companies and governments to rethink their plans.

In the case of baby milk, a lot has been achieved since the early days when Nestle promoted Carnation Milk as "a food par excellence for delicate infants"**, a line that the company dropped in 1977, the year the boycott began. The creation of the WHO code in 1981, and its continual updating, are in part due to campaigning groups such as Baby Milk Action. This has not saved enough infant lives, but it has undoubtedly saved some.

Boycotts can be extremely precise. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy in Burma, has asked tourists not to visit the country, because the military regime benefits directly from their money. Because Lonely Planet publishes a travel guide to Burma, pro-democracy campaigners organised a boycott of the firm's publications. Lonely Planet expected to sell 4,000 copies of the Burma guide in the UK, so the campaigners gathered more than 4,000 signatures from people promising not to buy its products. The effect was to wipe out any profit the company might make from its book on Burma, and to highlight the issue in the media.

Has this actually helped the people of Burma? Because many tourist hotels and facilities there are built using forced labour - Mandalay airport is one of the most recent examples - we can safely conclude that it hasn't done any harm. If the tourist numbers drop, so will the use of forced labour.

The World Trade Organisation's mission of trade liberalisation continues to increase the "rights" of multinationals. Add to this the sheer financial force of companies such as Nestle (its yearly promotional budget is more than the total state expenditure of the world's 28 poorest countries) and you have a situation where companies often have more power than democratically elected governments. In such circumstances, choosing which goods you buy, and which you won't, is more than liberal hand-wringing. It is actually a form of democracy. Boycotts may not lead us to the land of breast milk and honey, but they certainly help.

* As opposed to the ethical drug dealers, who have nothing to do with Colombian death squads, who use their profits for community developments, and who are currently seeking to market their produce with a Fair Trade label

** It isn't

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The urban guerrillas Britain forgot