Up in Smoke: Marijuana is Erasing Decades of Progress Toward Smoke-Free Environments

Download ‘Up in Smoke’ Infographic.

A recent Los Angeles countywide survey of 13,500 residents revealed pervasive public exposure to marijuana* smoke in parks, schools, apartment buildings, business complexes and outdoor spaces. Completed in 2019 by the LA County Prevention Provider Network, the survey found, for adults ages 26 and up:

  • 77% reported smelling marijuana in adjacent apartments (21% all the time)
  • 76% reported smelling marijuana in parks (22% all the time)
  • 75% reported smelling marijuana in business complexes (16% all the time)
  • 70% reported smelling marijuana in schools.

Youth were no exception. Seventeen percent of youth respondents reported exposure to marijuana in public all the time and 14% reported frequently.

The findings indicate a dramatic reversal to the years of progress that reduced California residents’ exposure to secondhand smoke. Before the legalization of recreational marijuana, California was considered America’s non-smoking section. In 1995, it was the first state to ban smoking tobacco in nearly every workplace and indoor public spaces. In the following years, the ban extended to restaurants, bars, taverns, and gaming clubs.

More recently, in 2016, California enacted multiple tobacco control laws that closed loopholes in the state’s smoke-free laws, including defining e-cigarettes as a tobacco product and prohibiting vaping wherever smoking is not allowed. For decades, the state’s strong tobacco laws were widely considered to have protected people – and youth in particular – from secondhand smoke.

Today, the tide seems to be turning. Public health experts cite two primary concerns about pervasive public exposure to marijuana smoke. For one, research shows that secondhand marijuana smoke contains many of the same cancer-causing substances and toxic chemicals as tobacco smoke and can create harmful cardiovascular health effects, including atherosclerosis, heart attack, and stroke.

“Smoke is smoke. Both tobacco and marijuana smoke impair blood vessel function similarly,” said Matthew Springer, cardiovascular researcher and associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Additionally, the normalization of marijuana smoke could influence youth use. Research shows the more marijuana use is seen as normal, the more likely youth are to try it. A 2014 survey by ABC News Radio found that three times the number of youths whose parents smoked marijuana reported smoking it themselves (72%). Only 20% of youth respondents reported smoking marijuana whose parents didn’t smoke. A 2017 study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine found that teens mentioned the widespread use of marijuana by people they know and its legalization as evidence that marijuana is not harmful. According to the study, “the findings suggest that normalization of marijuana use is taking place.”

Beyond the public health implications, the LA County survey found marijuana smoke is bothersome. Seventy-three percent of respondents indicated some measure of annoyance, reporting marijuana smoke bothered them extremely (31%), very much (17%), moderately (14%), or slightly (11%).

These issues become more pressing as increasing numbers of states change their marijuana laws. In last month’s election, voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota legalized marijuana for recreational use, joining the 11 states that had already done so. Policymakers in those states could look to California as a bellwether for what’s ahead.

So what can be done about it?

First, if a state legalizes marijuana, state and local jurisdictions should move quickly to define smoking to include the smoking of marijuana as well as the use of electronic smoking devices. New laws must be clear and comprehensive to avoid loopholes. In March 2019, for example, LA County expanded its smoke-free laws by clearly articulating its existing ban on tobacco products at beaches, parks, and government buildings, including electronic cigarettes and marijuana.

Second, the public must be educated on new smoking laws and on the true impact of marijuana smoke. While misinformation about secondhand marijuana smoke abounds, the data in an ever-emerging research landscape makes clear that secondhand marijuana smoke has negative health impacts. Smoke-free laws that include marijuana will better protect workers and the public from all forms of secondhand smoke and vapor.

Third, public health professionals must always be at the ready to push back on the motivated, profit-oriented marijuana industry. According to the Non-Smoker’s Rights Foundation, marijuana industry representatives could use tactics from the tobacco playbook, including loosening terms like “public” in ways more favorable to their purposes of normalizing marijuana use everywhere.

The truth is, a safe public environment is 100% smoke-free. It is possible to return to the clean air gains that were made with a renewed commitment in 2021 – by engaging health partners, the public and legislators at the state, county, and local levels. Let’s get to work.

* IPS’s corporate standard is to use the term ‘cannabis.’ For the purposes of this Hot Topic, IPS is reflecting the language used in the L.A. County Marijuana Public Smoking Initiative.

Sarah Blanch
Vice President of Organizational Development, IPS

Sarah is responsible for developing and implementing tactical plans that support the vision, mission, goals and growth of the agency. Sarah leads IPS projects in Los Angeles County, where she oversees the implementation of policy-focused initiatives intended to improve public health and safety throughout the City and County of Los Angeles.

Substance Abuse Is A Public Health Issue, Yet Sketchy Policies Have Ruined Many POC Lives

As seen on Blavity.

The blame lies not just with policy makers, but with us all for buying into the false narrative that substance misuse is a moral failing of ethnic minorities.

The United States passed its first substance abuse policy 100 years ago, the Harrison Act. It regulated opiates and cocaine. Prior to that time, drugs had been considered a public health problem to be dealt with by the medical profession. But by the turn of the century, the mood of the country had changed. Spurred on by a storm of controversy in the media, often reaching the level of public outrage, many more laws were passed in the following years. These included landmark legislation such as the prohibition of alcohol in 1920 and President Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs” in the 1970s.

To be sure, the concern over alcohol and drugs has always been real. Then as now, these problems have had a devastating impact on individuals as well as communities. And we are still struggling to deal with the fallout today. But America’s substance abuse policies were never really designed to address the issue. From its inception, the driving force behind these laws, more than anything else, has been a phobic reaction to uncontrolled immigration and the proliferation of minorities. The overall impact of those laws has not been a reduction in substance abuse, but the subjugation of minorities and people of color.

The Harrison Act is a prime example. There was much rhetoric at the time about the dangers of smoking opium, how it would lead to prostitution and other crimes. But the real concern was over who was using the drug — the growing population of Chinese immigrants who had originally come to America after the Gold Rush of 1849. Combined with fears of unemployment among white Americans, this also led to a series of Exclusion Acts that placed a moratorium on Chinese immigration.

As with opium, alcohol had been a problem long before any laws against it were passed. By 1830, the average American over 15 years old consumed almost seven gallons of alcohol a year — three times as much as we drink today. Also, in a time when women had few rights, there were problems with drunken husbands abusing their wives. So, America’s “Temperance Movement,” which was formed about this time, sought to ban alcohol consumption entirely.

But the movement gained little traction until the turn of the century when a group called the Anti-Saloon League, supported by the Ku Klux Klan, launched an aggressive media campaign based on anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant fervor. Focusing on wholesomeness and family values, they published fake news stories about white women raped by Black men who were unable to control themselves under the influence of alcohol.

Much the same strategy was used in the campaign against cannabis, only this time it was directed at immigrants from Mexico who came here to escape the Mexican Civil War. Stories in the media warned about the “killer Weed” inciting violent crimes, arousing a “lust for blood,” and giving its users “superhuman strength.” They changed its name to “Marihuana” to link it to the Mexican immigrants and claimed that they were distributing it to unsuspecting American schoolchildren.

In the 1980s, the focus turned to crack cocaine, which had been plaguing low-income, Black and Latinx inner city neighborhoods. Ignoring the economic policies that led to disparities in such neighborhoods, President Ronald Reagan’s administration blamed all their ills on drug use and allocated $1.7 billion for enforcement programs. Policies passed in subsequent years included harsher penalties for using drugs, with Black and brown people targeted for arrest and prosecution. As a result, 90% of state prisoners sentenced for drug crimes have been Black or Latinx, even though they used and sold drugs at the same rates as whites.

In more recent years, as the science of substance abuse prevention has advanced, policies have become more progressive. For example, while conducting enforcement operations, San Diego County’s Methamphetamine Strike Force has diverted drug users into treatment rather than sending them to jail. Even the federal government has taken a more enlightened approach in dealing with the opioid epidemic, indicting pharmaceutical companies for promoting the drug and allocating funds for research, prevention and treatment.

But the fact remains that throughout the 20th century, substance abuse policy has been used as a tool to turn public opinion against people of color and preserve the dominance of white America. The blame lies not just with policy makers, but with us all for buying into the false narrative that substance misuse is a moral failing of ethnic minorities who deserve to be treated as criminals and isolated from the rest of society.

Brenda Simmons
CEO/President, IPS

Brenda Simmons began her career at IPS in 2003 as a community organizer in San Diego County. She was promoted multiple times before she was elevated to CEO/President in April 2019. She has a broad range of experience working in very conservative rural and frontier communities in Montana, ultra-progressive communities including Los Angeles and West Hollywood, and everything in between. Brenda has been involved in projects ranging in focus from substance abuse prevention to community revitalization to child-sex trafficking. As CEO, Brenda oversees more than a dozen IPS projects in Southern California.

Covid-19 Effects Election

Voters are Being Disenfranchised During COVID. What Can We Do About It?

First, it was images of mailboxes being carted away in pick-up trucks, then states limiting ballot drop boxes to one per county. Now real-time court rulings are changing voting processes and procedures even though voting has already started. All of this is causing alarm, confusion, and hardship. To many, it represents a new tactic from an old playbook – a decades-long practice of suppressing the vote.

Before the 1960s, states often used Jim Crow laws, including literacy tests and poll taxes, to block Blacks, Native Americans, Latinos, and naturalized citizens from voting. While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought these practices to an end, deeming them illegal, Barack Obama’s election in 2008 after record voter turnout stirred the pot. By the end of his first term, no less than 27 voter suppression measures were passed or implemented in 19 states.

These measures were the precursor to the 2013 U. S. Supreme Court decision to strike down Section 5 in the Voting Rights Act, opening the door for critical discriminatory practices, including racial gerrymandering. States like Florida took advantage of a weak Voting Rights Act. The legislature passed a law requiring Floridians with a criminal record to pay all fines, fees, and restitution owed in connection with their sentence before being eligible to vote, essentially threatening hundreds of thousands of ex-felons with criminal prosecution if they voted.

These and countless other examples illustrate a pattern of coordinated and intentional efforts to make voting harder – sometimes impossible – for specific segments of the electorate, dating back centuries.

Here in October 2020, we find ourselves at the intersection of two momentous events: a global pandemic and a fraught presidential election. Sadly, the same populations historically targeted by suppression efforts are also disproportionately dying from coronavirus exposure: Blacks, Latinos, and low-income Americans. When voting in person could threaten their very lives, a deadly public health crisis is being leveraged to disenfranchise these same populations. Bringing them into the process means offering ways for all eligible Americans to cast their vote without being forced to travel far or stand in long polling lines.

Logical remedies allow for the full utilization of remote voting options. Despite claims that mail-in ballots lead to fraudulent voting by ineligible individuals, the truth is that this type of fraud is almost nonexistent. An extensive review by Professor Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School found 31 cases of impersonation fraud out of more than 1 billion ballots cast from 2000 to 2014. Still, while wide-spread mail-in ballots are a step in the right direction, voting by mail is threatened by a weakened U.S. Postal Service.

So, now that voting is well underway in most states, what can be done? States must be vigilant and proactive in widely publicizing voting options in simple terms, with clear instructions on voting requirements. Such publicity is even more critical if court rulings result in last-minute changes to voting procedures. Rural and traditionally disenfranchised communities must have easy access to ballot drop boxes. States should provide a system for voters to monitor the receipt and acceptance of their ballot. Communities can support local voting rights groups that are actively engaging in the courts to attempt to stop voter suppression efforts, as was just done in Texas.

And Congress must continue to do whatever it can to support the USPS in the timely and successful delivery of an unprecedented volume of mail-in ballots.

Voting is the cornerstone of our democratic process, and right now, it is no exaggeration to say that the ability of all eligible voters to participate in the November election is under grave threat. During this pandemic, at this moment, we must rise to the challenge. We must learn from history’s lessons. We must bring the vulnerable and disenfranchised into the voting process. Can we? Our democracy depends on it.

Census Buttons

Think the census is no big deal? Think again.

While all eyes are on the Democratic National Convention and the official coming out party for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, let’s not forget about the looming deadline for the 2020 U.S. Census. It will determine how the maps are drawn for redistricting for the House of Representatives and influence the political make-up of Congress in 2022. It could possibly be the most important census ever.

Since the first census in 1790, led by then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the decennial census count has been a backbone of our democracy. In addition to accurately helping to divide 435 congressional seats among the states, census results are also used to fairly distribute more than $1.5 trillion in federal funding annually.

This federal funding helps makes up state general fund revenues, including funding for public health programs.

The census is required to count every person residing in the U.S. — citizens, non-citizen legal residents and unauthorized residents. Our democratic process depends on a fair and accurate census count.

The 2020 Census is particularly challenged by the global coronavirus pandemic, threats to undocumented immigrants and their families, political influence in the counting process, as well as security problems with the first largely online census.

Experts fear serious under counts would invite lawsuits that could cripple the reallocation of Congressional seats and redistricting process, as well as drain public trust in this core function of government. Any loss in faith in the census – for any reason — would bring lasting damage.

We must be vigilant to make sure that we obtain as fair and accurate a census count as possible.

The last census was believed to be most accurate census yet. But while it was accurate, was it fair? The 2010 census was only off by .1%, but hiding in that small overall error were much larger errors miscounting groups of people. Non-Hispanic whites were over counted by almost 1% nationally, while Blacks were under counted by about 2%. Hispanic people were under counted by 1.5% and other groups were under counted even more.

One of the biggest challenges to the current census has been frequent delays to comply with virus protocols. While the COVID-19 pandemic does not seem to hamper online responses, it has caused delays in interviews by phone, and by-mail census efforts — because social distance requirements have limited the number of staff in both. And virus protocols and the concerns about virus exposure among those being surveyed may significantly hamper the in-person survey process.

Two years ago the administration pushed to get a citizenship question added to the census. A coalition of 17 states, Washington, D.C., and six cities filed a lawsuit to block it. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately disallowed the addition of the question without further information, so it was not included.

After losing that fight, the administration directed the Census Bureau to gather and provide citizenship data. The effort to not only add this question, but to aggressively go after undocumented immigrants has sewn fear in many undocumented residents and their families. This will make it even harder to count minorities that have already been traditionally under counted.

While the Census Bureau has previously been rigidly nonpartisan, it recently announced that is it creating two new top-level positions—both of which are political appointees. This push by the administration is the latest effort raising concerns among civil liberties advocates that is subjugating the census results.

The 2020 census is the first to be conducted largely online, raising new data security challenges. In fact, the Government Accountability Office identified such risks in a 2019 report and demanded the Census Bureau fix “fundamental cloud security deficiencies.” In February of this year, a GAO report called out that while the Bureau had made progress, they still needed to address serious cyber security weaknesses and concerns.

We must act now. The counting deadline has been moved up to the end of September. Let’s not allow that to detract from importance.

We must take swift actions to remedy potential problems with the census and ensuing results. 

First, lawmakers should demand the removal of political appointees from the nonpartisan Census Bureau. Such appointments only threaten not only the accuracy and fairness of the census, but undermine public trust in the results and in our government as a whole.

The Census Bureau should undertake advertising campaigns in multiple languages to assure affected populations that no citizenship question will appear on the 2020 Census and that information they provide to the census cannot be used against them.

The government should broadcast its commitment to maintain census confidentiality and put in place stronger safeguards against misuse.

The census is under threat and with it our fair representation in Congress and access to more than $1.5 trillion in federal funding. Compromising the fairness and accuracy of the census or allowing the Bureau to become politicized threatens to undermine our democratic process and institutions, and thereby the trust of and connection with the U.S. public.

We must do whatever we can to ensure the 2020 Census is fair and accurate. The vitality of our country depends upon it.

Paul Levikow
Media Advocacy Specialist, IPS

Paul Levikow is a Media Advocacy Specialist for the East County and South Bay regions in San Diego.  Mr. Levikow previously worked for several years as a print and broadcast journalist as well as a communications director and public affairs officer for county government. 

Geospacial Solutions

Transform Communities Using Geospatial Solutions

As seen on GovLoop.

Since 1992, the Institute for Public Strategies (IPS) advances the health and safety of communities throughout the country and Mexico. The agency looks at policies and systems that play a role in alcohol and other drug (AOD) abuse, and factors that lead to crime and blight in neighborhoods. They work with communities to bring fresh produce and awareness of nutrition to underserved neighborhoods. They help facilitate self-sufficient, fully engaged community members into becoming champions for their neighborhoods by giving them tools to work with policymakers effectively and strategically.

To do this, IPS created the A.C.T. Model – Approach to Community Transformation. This multiprong approach guides the agency’s efforts in working with policymakers, enforcement agencies, civic leaders, businesses, faith communities and residents to help realize the type of communities we want to live in.

Act ModelGeographic information systems (GIS) plays a large part in the success of its efforts. IPS uses this technology in all five components of the A.C.T. Model.

Data and Research

IPS’ work is evidence-informed: They rely on scientific knowledge, using a fair degree of flexibility to allow for unique conditions, to make sound decisions. The plethora of data out there is limitless. Accessing, using and interpreting the data has its challenges. GIS allows IPS to harness that data and look for trends and patterns to make sound decisions.

For its work in addressing health disparities among the Latino population in San Diego’s South Bay, IPS collected data from many different sources: health, crime, socioeconomic, education and environmental. The team then compiled the data into a geodatabase and mapped it on top of census tracts or ZIP codes to visually represent conditions in the South Bay. This decision-making tool enables the project team to identify communities most in need of intervention.

Media Advocacy

Getting IPS’ messaging into the news is key to impacting policy and systems change. Media advocacy is purposeful and strategic and not designed to only inform the public of policy impacts. Television and print news rely heavily on compelling videos, photographs and infographics, such as interactive maps, to help tell the story that the audience can relate to and empathize with.

For instance, in 2019, several college campuses around the country dealt with the tragic consequences of binge and underage drinking, particularly in fraternities. This included IPS’ own San Diego community. To put a face to each of the victims and to tell their stories, IPS created a map that pinpointed where each tragedy took place with pictures and text. The map was submitted with a news release to local media outlets to engage viewers in understanding the problem and advocating for policies at either the university administration level or the national fraternity organization level to protect college students.

Policy Buy-In and Development

Gaining support for a policy can be complicated. It requires awareness and buy-in of all stakeholders. GIS provides tools such as maps, data dashboards and story maps to help communicate policy goals in an easy-to-understand manner to stakeholders, such as decision-makers, community members, enforcement agencies and news media.

The Binge and Underage Drinking Initiative (BUDI) at IPS works on preventing harm from alcohol, especially among teens and young adults. To gain support from the harm prevention community for BUDI’s policy advocacy work, IPS created a story map to highlight the issue of alcohol problems in San Diego County and presented it at the Alcohol Policy Panel of San Diego County’s quarterly meeting. The story map combines pictures, graphs, maps and text to provide a multidimensional narrative of alcohol harm prevention efforts.


For a policy to succeed, it requires community awareness and regular and consistent enforcement. Compliance checks ensure that businesses, for example, are following municipality- or state-mandated regulations that keep neighborhoods free from harm. This helps keep businesses accountable and builds trust among community members.

GIS allows IPS to collect its own data to make sure policies are upheld. For example, it created an app that assesses a bar or restaurant’s compliance with the state alcohol regulatory agency’s rules on responsible beverage sales and service.

In the past, observers recorded their assessment on paper. By digitizing the assessment so that it is accessible on a mobile device, the user can discretely record their observations and immediately build upon the underlying database. The database is then used to track the policy’s enforcement over time. It also informs the AOD prevention community if a bar has done a commendable job at preventing over-service of alcohol, or if intervention is necessary to advise bar owners and managers of lapses in responsible business practices. The process is now more efficient and less cumbersome for data recorders.

Community Organizing

Communities that rally around an issue will find success when they fully understand the underlying reasons for the problems they encounter. Maps help community groups grasp how a geographic location is related to disease, crime and other threats to health and safety.

Team members in IPS’ Pomona office are food security and nutrition champions in their city. Green space and urban gardens are found to promote nutrition and physical and mental health. But what happens when children and teens do not have access to them?

To answer this question, IPS first mapped out the locations of healthy food sources (farmer’s markets, urban gardens, fresh food markets, etc.) and fast food restaurants. The locations’ proximity to a local middle school was symbolized through different colored lines – blue for healthy and nutritious sources, red for unhealthy fast food. The resulting map showed that the red lines were shorter than the blue lines, meaning more fast food restaurants were closer to the middle school than healthy food sources. This demonstrated that students were at an increased risk of dietary problems and resulting diseases, because healthy foods were not as accessible as non-healthy options. Visualizing the data this way prompted support for establishing more urban gardens near the school and nutrition education at the school.

Because GIS is both an art and a science, IPS continues to promote healthy and safe communities by leveraging the technology’s creative and analytical tools, making this dynamic system appealing to anyone who has a stake in envisioning a brighter future for their communities.

Meredith Gibson
Media Director, IPS

Meredith Gibson is the Media Director for the Binge and Underage Drinking Initiative, Countywide Media Advocacy Project, and Partnerships for Success. She generates news articles to promote awareness of public health issues, collaborates on opinion editorials (op-eds) with community leaders, and pitches ideas and spokespersons to news outlets, amassing media coverage at the local and national levels.

Social Justice

5 Questions that Incorporate Racial Equity into Public Policy – Part 2

As seen on GovLoop.

Policymakers must consider racial equity implications during the enforcement phase as well as the development phase of a policy. This requires an understanding of how different populations will specifically be affected when it is enforced. For instance, will its enforcement result in further harm to Black, Latinx/Hispanic, Native American, Asian and Pacific Islander people or other minority groups?

Many policies are directed toward populations that may not have equal access to social determinants of health. These are the conditions that define a person’s quality of life, from the type of physical environment they live in to the education they receive and the socioeconomic factors that contribute to their overall health. Minority groups especially may find themselves unjustly penalized because they do not have the same opportunities for a higher quality life.

For instance, this has important significance for minority groups since more non-white people are homeless per capita than white people. Laws that prohibit loitering or sleeping in a public space may not have much impact on some. But if policies do not address the underlying issues such as the housing crisis, unemployment, mental health and substance abuse that may lead to homelessness in the first place, we miss out on an opportunity to intervene in improving the well-being of those living on the streets.

In the case of homelessness, enforcing a no-loitering policy should also come with a remedy for mitigating the reason someone is unsheltered.

When considering racial equity in the enforcement of a policy, it helps for decision-makers to consider the following questions:

1) Are resources in place to equitably enforce the policy?

Funding for staff and infrastructure must be equitably accessible to all populations. Here, it is necessary to distinguish between “equality” and “equity.” Equality is when everybody receives the same amount of resources. Equity is when everybody receives the resources specific to their circumstances to achieve the same opportunity.

In this situation, staffing and infrastructure must be determined based on the individual community’s needs that the policy serves, recognizing that each community has different levels of resources.

2) Are sanctions or punishments levied equitably (not equally!) across populations?

If an individual who is low-income, for instance, is given the choice between paying a fine or going to jail, their decision may come down to putting food on the table for their family or missing work while detained. It is easier for higher-income individuals to pay the fine, whereas lower-income individuals may wrestle with the two options, neither of which promote mental well-being. How will the policy further undermine the well-being of vulnerable populations?

3) Is the community aware of the policy and how it will be enforced?

Community awareness of a policy ensures that there is a clear understanding of its objectives and impacts. It establishes expectations and the accountability of enforcers for equitable enforcement. It also helps achieve buy-in and support from the community.

4) Who will be harmed if the policy is not enforced equitably?

Failure to enforce regulations equitably across all populations means that some communities will remain disadvantaged.

For example, environmental laws put a cap on the amount of pollutants that can be released into the air. However, often due to a lack of enforcement of these laws, people who live close to factories and industrial areas experience higher rates of respiratory problems and other negative health outcomes. Not surprisingly, low income minority groups are often the ones that live close to polluters. High income white people, on the other hand, live farther away and therefore have fewer health problems.

5) Is the policy flexible enough to allow for changes if data and evaluation show that enforcement is ineffective?

Data is key in determining if enforcement is working or if it produces inequitable conditions. Policies may include evaluation metrics that trigger a shift or halt to implementation and enforcement.

Rather than scrapping an ineffective policy altogether, small tweaks may produce a much more desirable (and economically efficient) outcome based on changing conditions. Metrics should take into account population-specific outcomes.

Equitable enforcement of policies results in healthier communities. When policies are equitably enforced, minority groups are given the same opportunities as white people to achieve optimal health, creating more fairness in the distribution of resources.

Meredith Gibson
Media Director, IPS

Meredith Gibson is the Media Director for the Binge and Underage Drinking Initiative, Countywide Media Advocacy Project, and Partnerships for Success. She generates news articles to promote awareness of public health issues, collaborates on opinion editorials (op-eds) with community leaders, and pitches ideas and spokespersons to news outlets, amassing media coverage at the local and national levels.

Social Justice

5 Questions That Incorporate Racial Equity Into Public Policy – Part I

As seen on GovLoop.

When developing public policies, racial equity should be considered from the very beginning.

‘Equity’ is a state where everyone can achieve optimal health, well-being and happiness, where no one is denied this ability due to race or socioeconomic status. By contrast, ‘inequity’ is an avoidable consequence of public policies that favor one group over another.

This month, Americans celebrated our independence. We were reminded of our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The majority of the population has enjoyed these rights since the beginning of our country. For others, however, especially communities of colors, these rights have not been easily attainable, if at all. Centuries of policies were created and enforced with implicit or explicit biases that prevented them from living the kind of lives they desired.

Now as our nation is reckoning with systemic racial inequities, whether it is from disparate health outcomes due to COVID-19 or the call for police reform due to racially charged events, agencies from all sectors are taking a practical and closer look at policies that create a more equitable society. Racial equity tools are guides that evaluate policies with the goal of benefiting everyone, not just a select few.

Considerations into racial equity can be incorporated into both the development and enforcement phases of a policy. Here are questions that agency staff can use to guide a principled approach to public policy development.

1) Does a policy that ensures racial equity exist? Does an existing one need to be revised to incorporate a fair chance for everyone to achieve the same benefit?

For example, Black people are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite equal rates of use. Black people are less likely to have charges dropped than white people. Once prosecuted, they are also more likely to go to jail.

Arrest records can have a substantial impact on a person’s ability to achieve quality of life, such as eligibility for financial aid, employment or public housing. This can lead to further health deteriorations for Black people.

2) Are all stakeholders identified who should be part of the decision-making process?

A good policy analysis looks at an issue from multiple angles. Will it have the buy-in of community members, enforcement agencies, business owners, property managers, faith leaders, school officials, urban planners and all other parties that the policy will impact?

For instance, liquor licenses are a hot topic in communities, often pitting the economic needs of businesses against the health and safety of residents and other business owners. Overconcentration of alcohol outlets and other types of ‘high risk’ businesses are often found in minority communities, where often, there are those who may not feel they have the political clout to weigh in on decisions or do not have the knowledge on how to do so. Municipalities that include a public comment period can hear from a variety of voices either in support of or against a proposed business license.

3) What parts of society will be impacted by the policy, from populations served (and underserved) to the required infrastructure to implement and enforce the policy? Who will and will not have access to the benefits of the policy?

Policies often have unintended consequences, and decision-makers should take strides to consider as many as possible and have a plan for mitigation. This is also the reason for involving the perspective of a wide range of stakeholders.

4) What inherent biases can undermine a policy?

Bias can lead to blind enforcement of policies that unjustly penalize minorities. Racial profiling, or bias-based policing, is one case. The War on Drugs is another example of a policy that disproportionately targeted African Americans, resulting in soaring arrest rates. These two policies also have the unfortunate consequence of undermining law enforcement efforts to create partnerships with the communities they are assigned to protect.

5) What does the data say about the proposed policy?

Policies should always be evidence-informed. Decision-makers should consider the community conditions and demographics by looking at data, such as the American FactFinder and U.S. Census Bureau.

Moreover, there needs to be transparency and accountability in how decision-makers arrive at policy decisions to give the community confidence that good decisions are being made.

Though centuries of systemic racism institutionalized bias into many policies at national, state and local levels, it is not too late to reverse the trend of one race benefiting while another suffers. This can happen through strategic and in-depth analyses of proposed policies, as well as the buy-in of all stakeholders.

Meredith Gibson
Media Director, IPS

Meredith Gibson is the Media Director for the Binge and Underage Drinking Initiative, Countywide Media Advocacy Program and Partnerships for Success. She generates news articles to promote awareness of public health issues, collaborates on opinion editorials (op-eds) with community leaders, and pitches ideas and spokespersons to news outlets, amassing media coverage at the local and national levels.

Tramatized Child

Positive Childhood Experiences Can Combat Traumatic Effects of COVID-19

The debate over whether to allow students to return to school is ever present. However, not much has been said about how children are coping with the traumatic effects of this pandemic and what we, as a society, are doing to help them deal with it.

According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 is causing trauma in ways in which we are not fully aware. Increased levels of anxiety, depression, and alcohol and drug misuse are a common theme across the country. Families who live in lower income neighborhoods have been hit the hardest and are especially feeling fear, stress, and uncertainty about their future. This type of trauma is causing toxic stress in adults nationwide and in our local communities and it is being transferred to our children every day.

Children today are essentially feeling the toxic stress of a different type of war and a new adversary that perhaps is even more detrimental than the virus itself. Since governors across the country forced schools to shut down and issued stay-at-home orders, children were confined to their homes. While it seems they would be safer, for many children, especially those living in poverty, this could not be further from the truth.
During times of crisis, stress levels in families tend to rise, making children more susceptible to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) such as child abuse and domestic violence.

What specifically are ACEs? According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ACEs are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood before the age of 18. Among these are experiences of violence, abuse, or neglect. ACEs can cause other problems and disruptions in life such as learning disabilities and alcohol and drug misuse, which can bring chronic disease or serious health complications later in life, including early death.

The CDC reports that ACEs are common. About 61% of adults surveyed across 25 states reported that they had experienced at least one type of ACEs, and nearly 1 in 6 reported they had experienced four or more ACEs. Although it is too early to know the exact numbers, it is safe to say that these numbers will only go up because of the pandemic.

One of the most profound findings of the research on ACEs is that preventing them has the potential to save millions of lives. For example, up to 1.9 million cases of heart disease and 21 million cases of depression could have potentially been avoided by preventing ACEs, according to the CDC.

Although it is disheartening to hear about the number of ACEs reported each year, especially with the potential for increased numbers during COVID-19, the good news is that ACEs can be prevented or countered. More experts are beginning to agree that countering those adverse childhood experiences with positive ones, known as protective factors, is proving to be effective.

In other words, perhaps there is no stronger cure for an adverse childhood experience than a positive childhood experience provided by a caretaker or caring, nurturing adult. More than ever, families, schools, faith-based groups, and community-based organizations need to be aware of this trauma-informed approach. Community advocates need to ensure policies are passed that have impact at community and societal levels, as well as individual and relationship levels.

Brenda Simmons
CEO/President, IPS

Brenda Simmons began her career at IPS in 2003 as a community organizer in San Diego County. She was promoted multiple times before she was elevated to CEO/President in April 2019. She has a broad range of experience working in very conservative rural and frontier communities in Montana, ultra-progressive communities including Los Angeles and West Hollywood, and everything in between. Brenda has been involved in projects ranging in focus from substance abuse prevention to community revitalization to child-sex trafficking. As CEO, Brenda oversees more than a dozen IPS projects in Southern California.

Media Advocacy

Controlling a Media Interview

As seen on GovLoop.

A number of things can happen that will cause a media interview to backfire, but there are ways to avoid having it become a complete disaster.

Any type of public speaking is perhaps one of the most intimidating things that a person can do. As a matter of fact, the Wall Street Journal reports that more Americans are scared of public speaking than they are of dying. And it’s no wonder why: any mishap or gaffe can live on in infamy on social media.

When going into a media interview, it helps speakers to have a “hope for the best, expect the worst” mentality. Reporters can intentionally or unintentionally try to trip up an interviewee. After all, it is their job to get to the bottom of a story. Therefore, preparation is key to making sure that everything you say is fair game for the news reporter to include in their broadcast or article.

Here are a few tricky scenarios that reporters may use and solutions on how a spokesperson can handle them.

Scenario 1: They ask questions that stump you.

The reporter asks a question in which you generally do not know the answer. This one easily catches spokespeople off guard and can easily lead to an uncomfortable silence as you scramble through your thoughts on how to best answer it.

Solution: Only tell the reporter what you know, not what you don’t know. If you are not the right person to answer a given question, it’s okay to say so. Offer to connect the reporter with someone who does know the answer.

Scenario 2: They ask you to speculate.

Among tricky questions reporters ask, predicting the future is a popular one. In trying to answer, you may inadvertently escalate a situation unnecessarily, provide incorrect information and be proven wrong.

Solution: As you prepare for your interview, write out two or three key messages, or sound bites, that you want the audience to walk away with. When you are asked this type of tricky question, you have a “transitional” or “bridging” statement prepared that will then lead the audience to your key message. For example, you may say, “That’s a good question and I won’t have a good answer to that until I receive further information (the ‘bridge’), but the most important thing that the public needs to remember right now is ……….. insert key message here.”

Scenario 3: They ask for your opinion.

Conflicts between personal opinion and agency policy can occur. But you have to be careful: Organizations have distanced themselves, often with dire consequences, from numerous public figures and celebrities due to statements that run counter to their values and brand. So you have to remind yourself of who is being asked the question: you as Jane Citizen or Joe Public, or you as the representative of your agency?

Solution: To navigate this question, address the request, create a bridge (have one ready!) and stay vigilant that you don’t say anything that contradicts your organization’s views.

Scenario 4: They ask questions out of left field.

Sometimes a question is asked that, although related to the topic at hand, is irrelevant to the final message that you hope to deliver. It’s the curveball of media interviews.

Solution: You can try to anticipate these questions by putting yourself in the reporter’s shoes and have an answer ready. Or, you can create a bridge and lead the audience to your two to three key messages that you already have prepared.

To summarize, remember these four points:

  • Pause before answering a question. Feel comfortable with silence. Take the time to collect your thoughts. Pauses can always be edited out in post-production if the interview is recorded and not live.
  • Don’t acknowledge points that you might contradict.
  • It’s okay to say you don’t know the answer to a question. But do offer to get back to them if they’d like.
  • Decline or refer questions to someone more knowledgeable if you have to.

Media interviews do not have to be as daunting as you think. A bit of preparation and practice can be the difference between one that succeeds and one that becomes a social media sensation for all the wrong reasons.

Meredith Gibson
Media Director, IPS

Meredith Gibson is the Media Director for the Binge and Underage Drinking Initiative, Countywide Media Advocacy Project and Partnerships for Success. She generates news articles to promote awareness of public health issues, collaborates on opinion editorials (op-eds) with community leaders, and pitches ideas and spokespersons to news outlets, amassing media coverage at the local and national levels.


Businesses and Public Health: Allies, Not Adversaries

The storyline has been consistent throughout the pandemic: economic and public health interests are fundamentally at odds. The reality is quite different. Business and public health have always been intrinsically connected, with shared mutual interests.

One such interest is having a healthy workforce. Employees that maintain good health are more cooperative and productive. They improve companies’ public personas. Alternatively, if employees are unhealthy, they are more likely to call in sick, costing U.S. businesses $225 billion annually. This has long been a real concern in the U.S., where many workers experience preventable health problems.

Consider the following statistics: about 17% of adults smoke, costing businesses an annual average of more than $5000 per employee in smoking breaks and health costs. About 70% of Americans over 20 years old are overweight or obese, costing businesses well over $4000 per year in additional health care costs. And 25% of Americans 18 years and older had at least one heavy drinking day in the last year, costing businesses an estimated $179 billion annually in lost workplace productivity.

These numbers reveal a significant opportunity. By developing an intentional and strategic focus on health factors for employees, such as stress, excess alcohol consumption, and smoking, businesses could be reducing their expenses and increasing their profits.

A business-health collaboration is not unusual for successful companies. In 2016, Target chose to look outward. As a centerpiece of its Corporate Social Responsibility strategy, the company invested $40 million in 50 nonprofit organizations across the U.S. to increase the physical activity and healthy eating habits of children and their families. This type of investment hinges on the premise that healthier American communities are fundamental to the future of all profitable companies.

Such business-health collaborative efforts can happen on a smaller scale. The University of Washington, together with the American Cancer Society and eight employers in the Pacific Northwest, launched a promotional program that encouraged employees to utilize the preventative aspects of their health insurance, such as cancer screening and flu vaccines. The program increased targeted preventive behaviors among employees from 38 to 61 percent.

There are also a growing number of businesses that directly support health and well-being through their products or services. Tech companies excel at this. They create applications that more effectively support exercise, nutritional products and services, and healthy homes and neighborhoods. These social-entrepreneurial businesses could be natural partners for public health organizations, as they are already focusing on improving peoples’ health.

More and more so, business leaders are seeing the importance of health and wellbeing in everything from driving up profits to attracting and retaining talent. Conversely, healthy communities lead to stronger workforces and economies. In other words, business and public health are natural allies. Even a pandemic doesn’t change that.

Eric Collins
Vice President of Programs, IPS

Eric Collins has thrived working in the communications, nonprofit and government sectors for three decades. He rejoined IPS in 2020 as the Vice President of Programs. In earlier roles with the organization, he directed the activities of the Alcohol Policy Panel of San Diego County and served as a project manager on county and federal grants focused on public health and safety, community revitalization, and substance abuse prevention.