Entertainment Education Advocacy Update

Thanks to my well-placed source on the ground in Washington, here is a brief update on the status of the entertainment education funding:

The Senate began consideration of the Labor-HHS bill yesterday and continues today (and possibly tomorrow). Sen. Coburn filed his amendment to eliminate funding for the Entertainment Education program, signaling his intention to offer it at some point during debate on the bill. We do not have a time frame for when Coburn will formally offer the amendment and when the Senate will debate it.

In his column today praising Senator Coburn’s efforts to eliminate pork from the budget (a worthy goal, but misguided in this case), Bob Novak of the Washington Post mentions the “$1.7 million added to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budget to fund a Hollywood liaison to advise doctor dramas.” This vastly oversimplifies the purpose of the program, and ignores the public health impact that results from collaborating with the entertainment industry to achieve the CDC’s health behavior change goals. If anything, it’s the anti-pork (literally and figuratively).

I just called both my Senators to urge them to oppose Senator Coburn’s pending amendment. If you feel as strongly about defending the value of the entertainment education approach as I do, I hope you will call or email your Senators today as well. I think we especially need people from outside of California to contact your Senators, because most of the efforts so far have been centered in L.A.

To make it even easier for you, here are a couple of sentences you can use as-is or adapt for when you call:

Hi, I’m calling to urge Senator ____ to oppose Senator Coburn’s amendment to the Labor/HHS appropriations bill that would eliminate funding for the CDC’s entertainment education program. This is an effective and cost-efficient public health tool that has been proven to increase health knowledge and healthy behaviors among television viewers. Thank you.

Two minutes per phone call, and we can make this happen. We’ve got the power.

Photo Credit: sazztastical

Save the CDC’s Entertainment Education Funding!

I have been intending to write about this for some time, and with the US Senate about to open up debate on the appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services this week, the time must be now.

Back in July, when the House of Representatives was voting on the HHS Appropriations bill, Congressman Ryan of Wisconsin successfully passed an amendment on a voice vote that took out the line item for the CDC’s entertainment education project (currently housed at USC as Hollywood, Health and Society). This is a well-known, successful program that works with television writers and other entertainment industry professionals to ensure that health issues are depicted accurately and to work towards inclusion of health content into shows to promote healthy behaviors on the part of the audience. I have written about the effectiveness of the entertainment education approach many times before.

Congressman Ryan lumped this program in with other instances of what he considers wasteful spending by the CDC and tarred it with a very broad brush. Here’s an excerpt from the transcript of his remarks:

Mr. Chairman, there is a recent troubling report entitled “CDC Off Center,” which was produced under the direction of Senator Coburn with a report in the Senate Government Affairs Committee. Instead of using its resources to fight life-threatening diseases like HIV/AIDS and cancer, the CDC has instead spent money on needless luxury items and nongovernment functions.

For example, the CDC’s Office of Health and Safety recently provided its employees with a new, extravagant fitness center that includes such items as rotating pastel “mood” lights, zero-gravity chairs, and $30,000 dry-heat saunas. The CDC has also spent over $1.7 million on a “Hollywood liaison” to advise TV shows like “E.R.” and “House” on medical information included in their programming, clearly an expense that should have been covered by the successful for-profit television shows, not by our hard-earned tax dollars. They also further squandered taxpayer dollars in an office intended to help improve employee morale…

In a time when we are facing increasing risk of bioterrorism and disease, these are hardly the best use of taxpayer dollars. My amendment simply would ensure that the CDC would not be able to spend any more Federal funding on these three boondoggles described above. And it is my hope that we can get the CDC focused on doing its job, which is very important and they do a good job on that, and not on these kinds of boondoggles.

With that one sentence about the “Hollywood liaison,” boom, out went that program. I’m not going to comment on the rest of the CDC “boondoggles” because I don’t know enough about them. I do know that entertainment education is not a boondoggle, but a very effective public health activity.

Congressman Ryan’s chief objection seems to be that those rich Hollywood types should pay for their own darn consultants if they want to be medically accurate. The fact is, TV writers and producers are in the business of telling stories and entertaining people. There aren’t many producers out there like Neal Baer who put a premium on incorporating health education while telling a good story. Many need to be convinced, and then handed the information on a silver platter. If programs like Hollywood Health and Society (HHS) and others like it weren’t doing constant outreach to the entertainment industry, much more inaccurate information would be getting out to the public, which might then be erroneously acted upon.

And that doesn’t take into account that this type of outreach is much more cost-effective than producing television ads and purchasing time to run them. Some examples of the cost savings can be found by looking at the shows HHS has consulted on (thank you to my anonymous well-placed contacts who provided me with this information):

  • Show: ER
    Topic: adolescent obesity and related topics
    Length: approx. 7 minutes
    Audience: 24.8 million
    If purchased time using ad rate: $4,818,324
    Evaluation results:
    • Viewers reported more healthy behaviors after seeing the storyline, i.e. exercising and eating healthy (AOR 1.65, p< .01>• Viewers had more knowledge of 5 A Day compared with non-viewers (AOR 1.05, p< .05>• Men had the greatest and most significant gains in knowledge (AOR 1.25, p< .01>
  • Show: 24
    Topic: Bioterrorism/major disease outbreak
    Length: approx. 20 minutes
    Audience: 11.4 million
    Cost if purchased time using ad rate: $12,360,000
    Evaluation results:
    • Viewers who saw one or more of the 5 storyline episodes had increased knowledge about susceptibility to a bioterrorism attack, how infection spreads, public health response, and steps to take in a bioterrorism emergency.
    • Viewers were also significantly influenced in their intention to follow directions from authorities.

Over the past five years, the total time that television shows aired public health information concerning CDC topics was approximately 545 min., reaching 586 million viewers. The total cost if they had purchased ad time on those shows would have been $72,442,644. For the number of people they reached, and the effectiveness of the content, I’d say the program was a bargain at $1.7 million.

If you agree that the CDC should continue to promote public health through the very effective entertainment education approach, please contact your Senators to express your support for retaining this funding. You can find your Senators’ email and fax numbers here. You can adapt this sample letter:


Senator _______
U.S. Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Senator _______:

I am writing to share my support for the CDC’s Entertainment Education Program, an important public health tool which utilizes the power of popular mass media to educate Americans about healthy behaviors. I urge you to oppose any attempts to eliminate funding for the program when the Senate considers the Labor-HHS Appropriations bill for fiscal year 2008.

The CDC’s Entertainment Education Program fosters the use of factual health information in television shows and promotes the incorporation of important and timely public health messages into television programming. Funding for this program allows the CDC to reach out to television writers with written materials and experts on a wide range of public health issues, to respond to requests from television writers, producers, and researchers, and to ultimately connect them with experts who can provide factual information. Rather than serving in lieu of paid consultants to the shows, the program ensures accurate depictions of health issues even when no such effort would have been made otherwise on the part of the entertainment professionals.

During House consideration of the Labor-HHS bill, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) successfully offered an amendment to eliminate funding for the program. I urge you to oppose any similar effort in the Senate.

According to the 2005 HealthStyles (Porter Novelli) study, nearly six out of 10 (58%) regular television viewers report learning something about a disease or how to prevent it from a daytime or primetime drama. More importantly, nearly three out of 10 (28%) regular viewers took one or more actions as a result of a television health storyline, such as telling someone about the health topic, calling a hotline or visiting a clinic.

Under the guidance of the CDC’s Entertainment Education Program:
• More than 400 television episodes contained public health information, including more than 82 major storylines
• 11 shows ran some combination of informational PSAs, info spots, and toll free numbers
• 28 storylines were evaluated for effect on viewing audiences
• More than 200 links to public health information were provided to show websites for their viewers

The entertainment education approach works. Up to 20 million viewers may watch a single T.V. show, and they act on the health information they receive. It would be a public health tragedy for this highly successful program to lose its funding.


Please pass this information along to other entertainment education professionals and social marketers you know so that the entire field is not dismissed offhandedly as a “boondoggle.” The House wasn’t paying attention. Let’s make sure that the Senate is.

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Suicide Prevention Advocacy via Facebook

I’ve been spending more time on Facebook lately, getting to know how it works so I can use it when I have an appropriate project. The opportunity just presented itself in the form of an advocacy campaign headed up by my blog friend Jeff Harrell. A couple of years ago, Jeff wrote a moving article about a young woman named Suzanne Gonzales.

Suzy was a bright, bubbly young lady with a quirky sense of humor from a small town in California. After she went off to college, she became depressed and turned to the Internet for support in January 2003. Unfortunately, rather than finding people who wanted to help her recover and live a long, healthy life, Suzy posted a note about her suicidal feelings to the Usenet group alt.suicide.holiday. She was met with relentless discouragement against getting help, and over the following months was encouraged by members of the group to go ahead and commit suicide. This included providing specific details on the best method of killing herself and helping her come up with a plan to carry it out. On March 23, 2003, Suzy took her own life, alone in a Florida hotel room. She was one of many such “successes” to come out of that online group.

Yesterday, Jeff announced on his blog that he would be spearheading an advocacy campaign to help pass the bill currently before the House that was inspired by Suzy’s story. H.R. 940, the Suzanne Gonzales Suicide Prevention Act of 2007 (Suzy’s Law), would make it a crime to use the Internet to promote or encourage suicide.

It’s a very narrow and specific law, designed not to abridge freedom of speech or trample on state-specific laws related to suicide. Telling someone how to commit suicide is already against the law in all 50 states, but there is a need for a federal law to take into account the interstate nature of the Internet. A person can only be convicted under this law if they provided information on how to commit suicide to a particular person whom they knew to be contemplating suicide, and when that information was not generally known. The bill is currently in the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, and requires approximately 50 Congressional co-sponsors to make it to the next step in the process (it currently has 3 co-sponsors).

Jeff has created a striking website to serve as a home base for this advocacy effort (all work on this campaign by Jeff and others is on a volunteer basis). He has made it very easy for people to learn more about the issue, the legislation, and how to help. The main push right now is for people to call to urge their Representative to sign on to H.R. 940 as a co-sponsor of the bill. He provides a zip code look-up to find your Rep’s phone number, along with a two-sentence script that you can use if you’re not sure what to say.

I suggested to Jeff that he use Facebook to get the word out about this campaign quickly and efficiently. It seems like the kind of issue that Internet-savvy, particularly college-age, Facebook users would be interested in supporting and sharing with their friends. When I found out that Jeff was not on Facebook, I decided that this would be a good opportunity for me to set up a Facebook group and learn more about promoting a campaign via a social networking site. The page went live this morning, and includes:

  • an introduction to Suzy’s Law
  • campaign contact information
  • an action request to call Congress
  • a pointer to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline for people who might find the page because they or someone they know is suicidal
  • additional resources about suicide prevention
  • photos of Suzy
  • links to the story Jeff wrote about Suzy and to the website her family created in her memory
  • a discussion board with the starter topic of “Have you ever had a friend who was suicidal? What did you do?”
  • and a post on the Wall about National Depression Screening Day, which is tomorrow, Thursday October 11.

I invited my Facebook friends (almost 50 people) to join, and Jeff posted a link to the group on the campaign blog. I left messages on about 8 or 9 other Facebook groups related to suicide prevention, depression and mental health inviting their members to join our group. By the end of the day, we had 17 members in the group — the majority of whom were not from my own network. It’s not a huge number, admittedly, but I will be watching with interest to see how quickly it increases. I’ve had my jealous eye on the “Support the Monks’ Protest in Burma” group, which currently has a whopping 397,000 members and increases by about 17,000 a day (if that’s how often the “new members” feature is updated). I’m looking to that as an example of how to get a group to spread.

If you are on Facebook, please join our “Support Suzy’s Law for Suicide Prevention” group and invite your own friends to join as well. If you’re not on Facebook, it’s free, quick and easy to become a member, and then you can join the group. You can also add me as a friend (here’s my profile – viewable once you have a Facebook account).

Let’s make sure that other young people like Suzy are not persuaded by sick strangers that suicide is the best answer, and then coached on how to take their own lives. If you live in the U.S., I hope you’ll get involved by making that quick and easy phone call to your Representative. And if you live outside the U.S., you can help us by spreading the word to your American friends. Thanks!

China’s Olympic Rings or Olympic Handcuffs?

When Beijing was selected as the venue for the 2008 Olympics, my esteem for the institution went way down. What should the Olympics stand for, if not the freedom to follow your dreams and be the best you can be? Giving China — one of the worst international human rights offenders — the opportunity to grandstand in front of the world as if it were just another global good citizen evokes shades of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

It’s not as though China’s abuses are minor or in dispute. Beijing’s victims include hundreds of thousands of Tibetans who have died as a result of China’s invasion of their country, thousands of dissidents and prisoners of conscience who have disappeared into prisons, organ harvesting from political prisoners, and the 400,000 Darfurians who have been killed in Sudan’s genocidal campaign backed by Beijing’s oil profits. China wants so much to control its population’s every potentially nonconforming thought and action that it has even banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission.

The Chinese government is also implementing a human rights crackdown in preparation for the Olympics, ironically to clean up its image prior to the games. According to Wikipedia:

The Beijing municipal authority has declared that more than 70 local laws and decrees would be made before the 2008 Summer Olympics which would banish local people who don’t have hukou (residency permits) of Beijing. It would also banish vagrants, beggars, and people with mental illness from the city. The Municipal authority also made it clear that it would strengthen border control, call for a “special holiday”, or forcible shutout, to make Beijing citizens stay at home during the Olympics. It also seeks to strengthen controls over Chinese and foreign NGOs and forbid any protests during the games. The government has also strengthened its laws relating to prosecution of those deemed to be disseminating material not beneficial to the state.

The Geneva-based group, Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions has claimed that 1.5 million Beijing residents will be displaced from their homes for the Olympics event. Beijing’s Olympic organizing committee and China’s Foreign Ministry have put the number at 6,037. As of May 2005, 300,000 residents have been evicted in preparation for the games. Police in Beijing placed many people under arrest for protesting against the evictions.

Just today, the news came out that China arrested activist Yang Chunlin, who gathered 10,000 signatures for an open letter calling for human rights and opposing the Olympics. Clearly the government is nervous about efforts to link the Olympics and human rights — as well it should be. Human rights groups have dubbed these the “Genocide Olympics,” with a number of advocates starting the Olympic Dream for Darfur campaign and others addressing China’s role in issues like freedom of speech, religious freedom, Tibet, child labor, and the environment.

So, should we boycott the Olympics? Some are calling for this, but I think this is not the most effective path. We tried this with the 1980 Moscow Olympics and didn’t make much difference. It would only punish the athletes who have been working so hard and had no say in the decision where the games would be held. Better, I think, to get in China’s face and make sure the world knows what is going on there. We need to focus attention on their human rights abuses and not let them escape the glare of the world looking beyond the glittering facade to the bodies of the 1.3 billion people that the Chinese government steps on as it holds up the Olympic torch. We need to make Beijing squirm, and this event offers the opportunity to create a PR nightmare for the regime. When the world unites to denounce China’s repression, that will truly be an Olympic victory.

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Welcome, Mr. Secretary!

Remember the HHS Pandemic Flu blog? Today I learned two interesting pieces of news related to that daring Federal experiment in citizen engagement. First, that Admiral John Ogwunobi, the Assistant Secretary at the HHS who had incurred the wrath of flublogia for his perceived cluelessness when writing on the flu blog, has left his government post to go work at Wal-Mart. (No, he’s not a greeter.) I guess fending off hordes of enraged flubies got to him after a while.

The other bit of news is that none other than Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, who got a taste of blogging as a headliner at the Pandemic Flu blog, has now started his own blog. He says up front that he’ll try out blogging for a month or so to see whether he is able to continue the time commitment long-term, as he intends to write the entries himself. He also plans to read comments — which will be moderated — as often as possible and try to reply when he can. It’s clear with his second post that he did read the first set of comments (many of which were by holdovers from the flu blog continuing the conversation), as he responded specifically to some of the questions posed by commenters. Kudos to you, Mr. Secretary, for recognizing the value of blogging for engaging the public and for not being scared off by the passionate response to the earlier flu blog.

I will be speaking on a panel at the upcoming CDC Conference on Health Communication, Marketing & Media about the role of blogging to engage your audience, using some of the lessons learned from the HHS flu blog experience. The fact that the Secretary came back to blog another day will be a nice postscript to the case study.

Thanks to Greg Dworkin for the tip and links.

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All Your (Political) Base Are Belong to Us

my polling place

Though even most Angelenos don’t know it (or don’t care), there’s a local election going on here in LA today for School Board, Community College Board and a couple of city measures. I have to admit I did not pay much attention to it until today, when I had to figure out how I was voting, though we have been receiving tons of candidate-related mail for the past month. I am in a mixed marriage — politically speaking (though you’ll have to guess which I am!) — and so my husband and I receive all the mailings geared toward both parties.

Today when I was sorting through some of the mailers we received, I noticed that in a couple of cases the same slates of candidates were being promoted to people in both parties (though the seats themselves are nonpartisan). The group of College Board candidates who on one mailer are “Endorsed by the LA County Democratic Party” are featured on another mailer that says “Republicans support…” (without any actual endorsement from a Republican or the party itself). A third mailer with the same picture of this group highlighted the teachers unions’ endorsement, trying to appeal to those who are moved by cries of “Won’t somebody please think of the children?”

Similarly, another set of mailers are almost exactly the same as each other. But where one has a picture of a donkey in front of a red, white and blue background and the words “Vote Democratic,” the other has an elephant and the words “Citizens for Good Government.” (I guess they couldn’t bring themselves to use the R word, even though in the fine print it shows that several of the candidates are endorsed by the Republican party.)

I guess they’re trying to cover all their bases, but it seems dishonest to state that the same candidates are supported by both parties (how often does that happen, especially in a fight that involves teachers union money?). Most people would never notice the claims of support from both sides because they only get one party’s mailings. I’m afraid that the false advertising and claims of being all things to all people just make me more cynical and distrustful of all the candidates involved.

On a more positive note, today is a gorgeous, spectacular day in the upper 80s, and I just wanted to share the sunshine with a picture of some flowers from my front yard.

UPDATE (3/6/07): While the title may appear to be a major grammatical train wreck, I realize that not everyone else is a wannabe geek like me and that I’d better provide context. I’ll admit that I don’t really speak 1337, don’t use Ubuntu and I haven’t read a comic book since Wendy the Good Little Witch. But I hope you’ll forgive me for trying to get in touch with my inner geek from time to time.

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