Testimony in support of S2659 to NJ Senate Health Committee (pdf)

TESTIMONY TO THE NJ SENATE HEALTH, HUMAN SERVICES AND SENIOR CITIZENS COMMITTEE IN SUPPORT OF S2659 that “Revises membership of Public Health Council and fully restores functions, powers, and duties of council.”

By Drew Harris, Chairman, NJ Public Health Institute

February 7, 2011

I am here in support of S2659. This legislation will restore two fundamental principles of public health policymaking in New Jersey. 

  1. Public health policies should be based on sound science; and
  2. Public health policymaking should be insulated from the vagaries of the political processand public opinion.

There is a longstanding tradition of expert, independent rulemaking for public health in our state. This Legislature established the State Board of Health in 1877 to “... take cognizance of the interests of health and life among the citizens of this State...” [See below for full text.] The original members of this board included physicians and individuals with public health expertise.

In 1915, the New Jersey Department of Health was created. It was governed by a board of eight members appointed by the governor, with no more than four members from the same political party and included at least three physicians and two sanitary engineers. In 1947, this board was renamed the Public Health Council, but still possessed independent rulemaking authority. Executive Reorganization Plan 003-2005 essentially removed this independent authority and rendered the Public Health Council advisory. This bill will correct this error.

Public health is a diverse and technical discipline. Twenty-five of the 30 years in life expectancy gained over the past century is attributed to effective public health interventions. The areas of its concern impact people in fundamental ways—telling them what they can and cannot do. Good public health policy strikes a balance between individual liberty and community health and safety. A poorly informed electorate tends to tips the scales of this balance. The Public Health Council should be the buffer between the public health scientists and the rough and tumble of political discourse.

I respect the work of the NJ Department of Health and Senior Services. There are many talented and knowledgeable professionals working there. Unfortunately, there are also many examples of situations where sound science was trumped by short-term political expediency or misguided public opinion. These include our delays in implementing syringe exchange to fight IV transmission of HIV, drinking water fluoridation to promote oral health, medical marijuana, religious exemption for mandatory childhood vaccination and most recently nutrition labeling. Department staff were stymied or overruled in each of these situations when concerns other than what was best for the public’s health took precedence.

The Public Health Council can and should be an objective body comprised of independent experts with the knowledge and experience to formulate laws that help the most, impose on the least and bring the public voice into the rulemaking process.

Respectfully, Drew A. Harris, Chairman, NJPHI