George at APHA II

By Scott Burris

(Second in a series of posts on the George Project session at APHA last week.)

Lindsay Wiley, who has been writing some interesting stuff lately about the democratic foundations of public health, used her talk to discuss Building and Honoring Coalitions in Controversial Times. Part of the George discussion has been directed to changing the public health law conversation from a set of complaints about setbacks to an exploration of new possibilities.  In thinking about the pivot from challenges to opportunities, Wiley has been focusing on opportunities to protect and strengthen coalitions across progressive advocacy communities and with other potential allies.

This issue arises in a range of contexts: from health and environmental issues surrounding food production, marketing, and labeling to employers’ and private health plans’ efforts to cut costs by providing incentives for healthy behavior. Wiley’s presentation focused on recent tensions between public health advocates and civil rights, anti-poverty, and anti-hunger groups. Within the public health community, she argued, we in public health law tend to automatically see public health goals as compatible with broader social justice goals. We claim social justice as the moral foundation of public health practice and advocacy.  But over the last few years – intensifying in the last several months – that synergy has been threatened.

Wiley discussed three recent controversies: the soda industry’s framing of the legal challenge to the NYC soda portion rule as a civil rights issue; anti-hunger and anti-poverty groups’ vehement opposition to proposed restrictions on the use of SNAP benefits to purchase unhealthy foods and beverages; and opposition to primary enforcement seatbelt laws based on concerns about racial profiling. Wiley’s examination of these events suggests that in some instances, the public health community needs to work more closely with civil rights and anti-poverty groups to promote a more progressive, ecological approach to public health issues and to make the case for health disparities as a civil rights and anti-poverty issue (rather than simply claiming civil rights or anti-poverty as public health issues). In other instances, public health advocates may be picking the wrong battles altogether, siding with groups who want to penalize socially and economically disadvantaged communities without working to facilitate healthier options in those communities. But in some instances, public health advocates have been able to forge compromises that result in a true win-win: promoting public health goals while also achieving reforms in other areas.

Like Wendy Parmet’s talk, described yesterday, Lindsay Wiley’s challenges the comfortable notion that public health is automatically given credit for its high moral standards and good social intentions. She doesn’t say we can’t occupy the moral high ground, but we may have to work harder to get there, and she has some practical ideas about how to do it.

Tomorrow: Renee Landers’s talk.

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