Federal health agencies are a major area for government spending. The National Institute of Health (NIH), Center for Disease Control (CDC), and others receive billions of dollars each year to improve public health. This has culminated in a fair amount of successes. For instance, in 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General released a statement to the public that tobacco use is a health hazard, as addictive as heroin, and causes cancer. In this scenario, the government decided that the American public needed the truth, and policies were created to educate the public and reduce use. Warning labels were put on packages, and TV ads and product placement in movies were banned. These efforts resulted in a sharp decrease in tobacco use from 50 percent to roughly 20 percent today. This was a major win for the government in protecting the public’s health.
That’s not to say that the federal government always gets public health matters right. Tobacco use is still the most common cause of preventable death in the United States, but obesity and alcohol are second and third. Public health officials argue that increased taxes on sugary foods and alcohol could save hundreds of thousands of lives, but it’s a political non-starter. Often, the power of lobbyists in our nation’s capital can sway noble efforts to protect the public.
Obesity and alcohol are two areas where the public health agencies can do more, but there are other areas that cause harm. A notable example is the war on drugs: an effort that has cost millions of lives and dollars, but makes it increasingly difficult for people to seek help when they’re dealing with substance abuse. As a consequence, the policies put in place led to mass incarceration rates.
So, what can we expect from the public health sector in 2021? Anticipate more from these federal health agencies. The CDC, NIH, and other agencies will get larger budgets. It’s not about the amount of resources they get, but how they are used. Our public health infrastructure is not perfect. With a big shift in politics in 2021, it is important for us to remain alert and informed to ensure that what gets done in Washington is in the best overall interest of the people.