Public health issues, AIDS, sex education and federal tobacco regulation take center stage

Republican and Democratic presidential campaign representatives today said their candidates will address the public health work force shortage, but they debated the need for sex education and federal regulation of tobacco at the “Public Health and the Presidential Election: A Discussion with the Campaigns” forum co-sponsored by the American Public Health Association and the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

“Core public health concerns were center stage today,” said Georges C. Benjamin, MD, FACP, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “For much of the presidential campaigns, health care financing and drug reimportation have dominated the health debate. This forum emphasized the need for public health to be more visible and more engaged.”

Sarah Bianchi, national policy director for Senator John Kerry’s campaign, said Kerry, if elected, would double funding for global HIV/AIDS programs. Colin Roskey, campaign surrogate for President Bush, said he could not detail any “dedicated, specified level of funding” for AIDS programs. Under Bush’s current spending plan, the United States will provide just 16 percent of what the United Nations has stated is needed for a minimal response to AIDS by 2005 – $10.5 billion.

Bush and Kerry also intend to work with political leaders to combat the shortfall of public health professionals, Roskey and Bianchi said. The current vacancy rate in some state public health agencies is 20 percent, and as much as half of the current state public health work force will be retiring in the next five years.

Health care disparities are another area of common interest to the Democratic and Republican candidates. Roskey, an attorney with Washington law firm Alston & Bird, L.L.C., described the issue as a “larger social problem.”

The two camps, however, differed in their response to the question of the value of sex education. Roskey said Bush’s stand is known on the topic and he will not “be saying much more on this issue.” Bianchi said Kerry believes sex education is largely a state and local issue.

On the subject of tobacco regulation, Roskey said Bush does not support Food and Drug Administration oversight of tobacco products but mentioned the proposed tobacco buyout, which would assist farmers, pending before Congress.

Bianchi said the buyout will do “zero, nothing” to address the prevalent health risks of smoking. She reiterated that Kerry backs FDA tobacco regulation. “It is unconscionable that the FDA can’t really regulate tobacco,” Bianchi said.

Bianchi also attacked this week’s expiration of the 10-year-old federal assault weapons ban, saying “We should talk about keeping the most dangerous guns off our streets.”

Government policy experts, physicians and university administrators and students were among the nearly 200 who attended the event in the Jack Morton Auditorium in the George Washington University Media and Public Affairs Building. Former ABC News special correspondent Jackie Judd, now a senior visiting fellow with the Kaiser Family Foundation, moderated the event. Ruth J. Katz, JD, MPH, dean of the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, and Georges C. Benjamin, MD, FACP, executive director of the American Public Health Association, gave opening remarks.

http://www.apha.org

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