As I noted in a previous column in this space, the use of health impact assessments (HIA) is gaining headway in public policy. This information-gathering tool was designed by public health activists to encourage regulatory and legislative processes to prioritize public health in a wide range of decisions. In recent months, the biased use of HIAs has been championed on larger and more influential stages.
Just last month, public health activists, academics and elected officials gathered in Washington, D.C., for the second annual National Health Impact Assessment Meeting. One panel discussion focused directly on the impact HIAs could have on policymaking in the states, with panelist and Massachusetts State Rep. Denise Provost (D) previewing the session in an interview: "The value of HIAs to communities is that they will in the long term — and even in the short- or middle-term — enjoy better health and fewer negative health effects from government decisions or government failure to reign in market forces that result in conditions that cause bad health as part of their business model."
Is the representative speaking of the "market forces" of consumer choice? Or convenience? Apparently, capitalism has run amuck in the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
What is most concerning with HIAs is not the focus on public health, but the monopolization of the process by ideologically anti-business organizations driving their own agenda in the name of "science." Most significantly in the convenience store space, HIAs are being used to influence urban planning, transportation, climate change and energy development.
Unfortunately for level-headed policymakers and the businesses that must comply with new regulations, this discipline is growing. In recent years, 275 HIA projects have been completed or are in progress at the municipal, county, statewide and federal levels -- the vast majority of which are being conducted with the goal of injecting public health priorities into public policy. For convenience stores, that translates into new government regulations and mandates on snack and beverage products, storefront lighting and design, site locations/zoning, ingredient taxes or bans, motor vehicle access, additional cigarette and alcohol restrictions, fuel prices and taxes, and many more.
One organization pushing this radical approach is the Health Impact Project, a partnership created by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts (hardly business-friendly organizations) to promote the use of HIAs in the decision-making process, including permitting, zoning and planning, regulatory rule-making and legislation. This group is very well funded and has partnered with academics, public health professionals and scientists to create credibility for their efforts with policymakers.
With their vast financial resources, they are supporting HIA efforts across the country. From Duluth, Minn., to Davidson, N.C., Los Angeles to New York, the Health Impact Project is funding and partnering with other nonprofits, universities and government agencies to conduct HIAs analyzing the prevalence of farmers markets, access to grocery stores, and penetration of alcohol sales in certain markets.
Recently, the Health Impact Project presented at the Council of State Governments (CSG) to educate them on the process of creating HIAs and incorporating findings and recommendations into state public policy. Teaching the HIA concept to CSG attendees is especially significant, given the fact that CSG is uniquely comprised of legislators, governors and state regulatory officials. CSG also houses its own policy endorsement process, known as Suggested State Legislation, which enables model legislation or regulations to spread like wildfire across the country. CSG is essentially an additional state government that must be managed and lobbied as if it were a bellwether state like California or Massachusetts.
At the same CSG panel, a Pew/MacArthur Foundation collaboration dubbed the Results First Initiative outlined a broader -- allegedly more "scientific" -- approach to public policy they called "evidence-based policymaking," which calls for the exclusive use of its scientific methodologies, data and priorities to inform and shape public policy in a wide range of areas. Results First requires participating governments to continue collaboration with Pew, MacArthur and Robert Wood Johnson in their future policymaking.
While informed public policy should lead to better public policy, relying on one set of data without consideration of outside information on economic impact, market research or political realities is incomplete and results in bad policy. Such a strict diet of biased information constitutes a hijacking of the public policy process by left-leaning activists.
For convenience stores, this translates into the potential for a whole new gauntlet of regulations and mandates creating significant disadvantages for the industry, not to mention a bevy of unfair policies that favor other retailers over c-stores. This model includes recommendations to incentivize retailers who carry a higher percentage of fresh fruits and vegetables, changes to building codes to significantly modify storefront and motor-vehicle consumer access, taxes and bans on product ingredients, and even all out bans of c-stores.
For this reason, it is crucial for convenience store owners and operators to be engaged and build relationships with their elected officials and become even more engaged in their state and national industry associations. Franchisees, owners and operators must be strong advocates for their business and find ways to partner with government to add value to the community beyond the tax revenue they generate. Only then will the c-store community successfully counter the false perception being created by single-minded public health activists.
Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Parquet Public Affairs, a national issue management, communications, government relations and reputation assurance firm that specializes in service-sector industries. Parquet's clients include Fortune 500 corporations, trade associations, regional businesses and non-profit organizations. For more information, go to www.ParquetPA.com.
Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.