The Power of Language in Public Health

While viewing the public hearing yesterday regarding portion control on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) in New York City, it really bothered me how speaker after speaker, in particular those who opposed the amendment proposal, called it a “ban.” In fact, it is widely known as “the soda ban,” which has caused some to form an opinion on the issue before even knowing the facts. I too have been guilty of calling it a ban, but thought it was okay to do so because it is a ban – but only on SSBs larger than 16oz, and only in food service establishments. It is also easier to call it a ban because it is shorter and less clumsy to say than portion control. But often people just read the headline, hear the buzzword, and panic, thinking that soda is going to be taken away from them altogether. Yesterday however, I purposely used the hashtag “#sodaban” while live tweeting, so that my tweets would reach the general public interested in the issue.

Language has had a major impact on framing discussions and creating polarization surrounding controversial topics. For example, the healthcare reform debate: how did the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act become Obamacare? How did wanting to pay physicians to provide counseling on living wills, advanced care directives and end-of-life options turn into death panels?

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned for public health professionals involved in campaigns and policymaking. We need simple, catchy, positive-sounding, strong, yet accurate labels for our initiatives…and we have to come up with them before the media does. Can you think of more health-related labels that have emerged in the recent past? Tweet them to me @JMCelio.

For more on the role of language in shaping the course of political agendas, and for an amusing and enlightening read, check out Talking Right: How Conservatives turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show by Geoffrey Nunberg.

For more on what live tweeting is, or how to go about doing that, check out:

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