Byline: Elva Yanez, special contributor
After years of fighting hazardous and polluting projects on a smokestack-to-smokestack basis, environmental justice advocates and residents are turning to pro-active policy solutions as the lever to ‘undo’ inequitable neighborhood conditions and improve residents’ health, safety and quality of life. Like their early counterparts working on tobacco, alcohol and gun violence issues—environmental justice (EJ) advocates are exploring innovative strategies to ensure that these residents are not permanently relegated to “shorter, sicker lives.”
EJ advocates recognize that influencing policy allows them to get ahead of the environmental hazards curve. It offers the best opportunity for the biggest improvements in health outcomes. They understand that necessary and significant changes in neighborhood conditions will not take place without changes in policy.
As a serious public health problem that disproportionately affects some groups more than others, the issue of cumulative impacts has much in common with tobacco, alcohol and gun violence issues. As such, there is much that the EJ community can learn from the advocates who raised the visibility of ‘booze, butts and bullets’ issues and brought powerful and innovative solutions to the forefront.
LESSON #1: Experimentation = Innovation
One of the key lessons from these movements is that policy advocacy success has come about through a process of experimenting with a number of promising approaches, learning through trial and error, and ultimately focusing on specific evidence-based policy strategies. Local restrictions on handguns—that got their start in West Hollywood—have reduced gun fatalities. Regulating the placement and distribution of liquor stores in South LA, Oakland and other urban centers has reduced rates of crime and nuisance. In tobacco, it took a good deal of time, experimentation, research and evaluation to determine that excise taxes and smokefree laws are the two most effective strategies to reduce consumption.
LESSON #2: Significant Power Lies at the Local Level
Another key lesson from the nonsmokers’ rights movement is that there is power and strategic advantage in working at the local level. Its magic. In the 1980’s Walter Merryman gave a speech to his tobacco industry colleagues. Here’s how he described the growing tide of city and county smokefree ordinances:
“At the local level, it’s kind of like getting pecked to death by a gaggle of geese. There are at least 80 cities and counties which regulate smoking in restaurants, most of them in California, that bastion of libertarian laid-back demeanor.”
Merryman’s dis to California aside, today there are over 3,000 cities and counties in the US that have local laws in effect restricting smoking in public places. Over 30% of the U.S. population lives in a town or state with a comprehensive clean indoor air law. A movement that got its start in Lodi, California has gone international and there are now 17 countries with comprehensive smokefree laws.
Policy innovation comes from the bottom up—starting locally. The most effective way to engage people on any issue is at the community level. Local advocates have more power and authority in their own communities than in statehouses or inside the Beltway. Local policy makers are more accessible and more accountable to advocates who might be a friend, neighbor or relative. The many victories related to guns, tobacco, alcohol and, more recently, healthy food environments confirm that local prevention policies are more effective and easier to enact, implement and enforce than policies at the state or national level. A companion lesson concerns preemption and the need to watch for state or federal legislation that attempts to put a stop to strong, effective local policies.
LESSON #3: Success Means Authentic Community Engagement
As the booze, butts and bullets movements evolved, their leadership recognized the importance of engaging the communities that suffer the most from these problems. In addressing tobacco, government and private initiatives focused initially on the general population. As they made headway and evidence became clearer, there were more investments made to blue-collar workers and the LGBT community, for example. The degree of success in the tobacco, alcohol and gun violence movements can be attributed, in part, to the acknowledgement of race and class inequities, as well as investments in building capacity and infrastructure to carry out policy advocacy in these communities. Experience shows that people most impacted by health problems know their communities best. With the right kind of investment and support they are able to identify the salient problems, develop innovative solutions, and serve as powerful advocates for policy change.
LESSON #4: Address Economic Arguments (with Data)
Working to regulate industry practices presents challenges and opportunities. Today, advocates must be creative and strategic in crafting winnable policy solutions in a tough economic climate. As tobacco and alcohol advocates learned early on, it is essential to develop authoritative data to counter the inevitable argument that effective policies or regulations cause economic harm. Advocates working in South LA on liquor store and fast food issues have overcome opposition by developing comprehensive solutions that meld financial incentives and regulatory policies, thereby balancing job creation, economic development and safeguards against health hazards in high need communities. Policy innovation of this kind generally emerges from cross sector collaboration and non-traditional alliances.
While there are countless other lessons that have relevance for the growing movement to address cumulative impacts, we don’t have time to touch on them all. However, I would like to point out some of the most relevant for the issue of cumulative impacts today:
• The importance of issue-specific framing and messaging;
• Building capacity for effective media advocacy;
• The need for legal, policy and economic research, and;
• Study and evaluation of emerging policy advocacy efforts.
Additionally, cultivating and supporting leaders among advocates, researchers and policy makers and establishing effective communications infrastructure is critical to future success of this movement. We also know from past experience that in order sustain and replicate local policy success, movements require steady funding, capacity and infrastructure, technical assistance and training.
Though deeply challenging in many ways, we are operating under conditions that are ideal for developing new alliances and innovative, multi-benefit solutions to the problem of cumulative impacts. Cross sector partnerships are already underway and convergence of public health, planning and environmental issues is taking place locally and statewide. Collaboration among the sectors represented here today is essential if we are to succeed in addressing cumulative impacts. Creative partnerships and broad-based alliances are required to create healthier communities, save lives, and reduce suffering and further burdens on our health system. I look forward to working with you and developing cutting edge policy solutions to toxic hot spots that promote green economic development, reduce toxic emissions, save money and improve health outcomes.