A Beginning in Tobacco Control

The image of an office worker smoking at her desk evokes another era; it’s not something you would see in most offices today. But just a few decades ago, smoking was common in workplaces, restaurants, and apartment buildings around the nation—and the number of people who died prematurely reflected that reality.

Strong public policy can give everyone a fair shot at a healthy life.

All of that changed in 1986 in Contra Costa County, located east of San Francisco. At the time, Marice Ashe (who later would be the founder of ChangeLab Solutions) was managing the county’s tobacco control program. With Ashe’s help, progressive county leadership passed a groundbreaking piece of legislation: the nation’s first multi-city ordinance restricting smoking in the workplace. Suddenly, many workplaces were no longer toxic environments; they had become healthier places for employees, thanks to this policy change. 

After many years of work in local government, Ashe started thinking about what all communities would need to make healthy, legally sound change. In 1996, she started laying the policy groundwork for other communities that wanted to curb the use of cigarettes and other tobacco products, particularly among youth. 

Since then, ChangeLab Solutions has provided legal assistance, training, and model anti-tobacco policies to every California county. These policies promote health from every angle. They might limit the location and number of stores selling tobacco products, restrict tobacco advertising, or expand the scope of public smoking bans. Throughout the state, communities have modified our model policies to fit local needs and then put them into action. 

These policies have helped California save $134 billion in health care costs, and their widespread adoption has contributed to a 25% drop in tobacco-related deaths. Most important, social norms in regard to smoking have fundamentally shifted in California, thanks to ChangeLab Solutions’ work. 

How Profound Change Takes Hold

Our model policies have been adopted by communities across the United States.

ChangeLab Solutions’ story is about how profound change takes hold, not just in the health of individuals but in the health of communities. We use law and policy to change the way our society is structured, to address the root causes of chronic diseases like cancer, asthma, and diabetes. We work to make communities healthier for everyone, especially where healthy options are not the norm. 

Our policy work does more than tackle tobacco. Operating at the intersection of health advocacy and social change, ChangeLab Solutions’ efforts address a broad range of public health issues. 

For example, when residents of low-income neighborhoods don’t have what they need to be healthy—such as safe parks for play and exercise or grocery stores that sell fruits and vegetables—our policy solutions can correct those inequities. Strong public policy can give everyone a fair shot at a healthy life, creating environments that protect children from tobacco smoke, make nutritious foods easy to find, and offer all families safe housing they can afford. 

Going Nationwide: Obesity Prevention & Beyond

A looming American health crisis provided an opportunity to apply effective policy strategies in other areas of health policy. In 2005, our multidisciplinary team recognized that childhood obesity had become a public health threat on a par with tobacco, and we began crafting model zoning and licensing laws to combat the disease and its effects. We developed legal strategies to rein in the proliferation of fast food restaurants and open new playgrounds and walking trails, to increase physical activity. We provided legal assistance to community advocates and local jurisdictions nationwide.

Along the way, we continued to hone our unique and highly effective method:

  • We listen to communities express the challenges they face in achieving health for all.
  • We help them imagine and define the changes they want to make.
  • We draft the ambitious, forward-thinking policies they need to make those changes.
  • We explain how to use those policy tools effectively.

Our model policies have been adapted and then adopted by communities across the United States. Driven in large part by ChangeLab Solutions’ work, the national obesity rate for children ages 2 to 5 dropped 5% in a decade, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 

When policymakers collaborate, they can develop better policies to promote more just, vital, and thriving communities.

ChangeLab Solutions’ efforts have since expanded from tobacco control and obesity prevention into less traditional health policy areas. We’ve worked on changes to the built environment (such as policies that make streets safe for people walking, biking, and driving), reuniting the fields of urban planning and public health. And we’ve applied that deep expertise to the housing crisis, developing tools to protect residents from living in unsafe housing or having to leave their homes. 

Our staff had collaborated with communities across the country, developing stronger housing sections in municipal general plans as well as policies on public transportation, healthy food access, sites for physical activity, and community services. We had created tools to help communities make healthy change happen.

Collaboration: The Key That Unlocks Health in All Policies

In 2015, ChangeLab Solutions launched resources to help communities implement health in all policies, an approach that brings community leaders together to develop lasting health-oriented partnerships and policies. When policymakers collaborate, they can develop better policies to promote health and create more just, vital, and thriving communities—communities with better access to healthy foods and beverages, more opportunities for physical activity, and smokefree air. 

It is now widely accepted that the environments in which people are born, live, work, play, and age have a profound effect on how healthy they will be over the course of their lives. The most effective policies influence how people live in a community, what behaviors are supported and encouraged, and the risks to which residents are exposed—especially for those who have the fewest resources.

As new public health challenges emerge, ChangeLab Solutions will continue to meet them through our innovative approach to creating healthy, equitable policies. For more than two decades, our multidisciplinary staff—comprising professionals in law, public health, municipal planning, economic development, housing, transportation, education, communications, and policy analysis—has worked with communities across the nation to improve health outcomes for everyone. We can’t wait to see what we can change next!

View our history timeline to learn more. Contact us for more information, join our email list for updates on our work to improve health equity, and support our work to provide quality resources for policymakers, community leaders, and others working for healthy communities.