The Federal Role in Health Risk Communication. Among agencies of the U.S. Federal government, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) share the broadest set of responsibilities for determining and communicating health risks to the public. Risk assessment and communications activities have spanned a very broad range over recent years, as illustrated by the work of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to determine behavioral risk factors for cardiovascular disease and cancer; of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to determine the risk of toxic shock syndrome from the use of certain tampon products; and of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to determine the risk of a nonnutritive sweetener proposed for addition to the Nation's food supply (HHS, Task Force on Health Risk Assessment, 1986).

It is important to note, however, that the scope and quality of PHS and Federal health risk communications programs varies tremendously. In smaller operational units (e.g., Branch and Division) within PHS agencies, those most often responsible for public communications are frequently the least prepared and equipped to inform and educate the public about health risks. In the absence of a planned strategy, which is not uncommon, the communications process frequently (1) is reduced to the mass dissemination of pamphlets, press releases, and PSAs; (2) tends to emerge from a rationale the government believes to be important rather than consumer­based (Hadden, 1989); (3) measures communications success in terms of the number of products produced or mailed out; and (4) overlooks the most important reason for communicating—contributing to health behavior change (Arkin, 1992 and Johnson, 1989).

The rapid growth of education and communication programs within the Public Health Service (PHS) and other Federal agencies has created an increasing need for innovative and cost effective evaluation strategies. The June 9, 1994, workshop provided Federal agencies with a forum to report on how they were evaluating the information they communicated about health risks, how effective the communications were, and what specific principles and methods best promote more effective health risk communication outcomes.

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