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May 2, 2003

School to Establish Department to Study Ways to Enhance Healthy Behavior

Today, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health announced it will establish a new department to study human behavior and health. It is a unique interdisciplinary approach dedicated to directly identifying why people behave the way they do and how to most effectively change these behaviors to dramatically improve health. The department will develop new ways to prevent behaviors that are associated with the leading causes of illness and premature death in the United States and other parts of the world. The School of Public Health will create its new Department of Behavior and Health with a $20 million gift from a donor who wished to remain unnamed.

“Smoking, sedentary lifestyle and diet-caused obesity, avoidable injuries, substance abuse, and risky sexual behavior are the root causes of more than half of all deaths and hospitalizations in the United States,” explained Scott Zeger, PhD, who chaired a School committee that recommended the creation of the new department. Dr. Zeger, professor and chair of the School’s Department of Biostatistics, stressed, “When we target ways to prevent infectious disease, we study the vectors that spread the illness and develop vaccines and medications for treatment. When the target is disease and death-causing behaviors, the tools and methods are less developed, which is what we will research and create in this new department.”

The Department of Behavior and Health will take new approaches to behavioral intervention programs by focusing on the social context of change. Research and development of new interventions will involve individual and systems changes that promote healthier lifestyles through education, regulation, legislation, and social policies.

“We now understand that interventions that target the individual alone are inadequate,” said Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS, dean of the School of Public Health. “For example, by themselves education programs had only a limited impact on smoking, but when combined with high taxes on cigarettes and regulations restricting smoking in public buildings, smoking was dramatically reduced in the United States,” explained Dean Sommer.

The new Department of Behavior and Health will draw upon the School’s strengths in the social and behavioral sciences, communications, marketing and other core public health tools to establish a multidisciplinary research program of health-related behaviors and to develop interventions to promote health and prevent disease. The department will create a PhD degree program to train new leaders in the field.

“Many of today’s public health risks can be vastly reduced by changes in behavior. With the creation of the Department of Behavior and Health, we are in a unique position to lead this critical field of research and develop new interventions to improve health around the world,” said Dean Sommer.

With this gift to the School’s new Department of Behavior and Heath, commitments to the Johns Hopkins Knowledge for the World campaign total more than $988 million and are 49 percent of the $2 billion goal. To date, $238 million has been donated to the School of Public Health. Priorities of the fund-raising campaign, which benefits both The Johns Hopkins University and The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, include strengthening endowment for student aid and faculty support; advancing research, academic and clinical initiatives; and building and upgrading facilities on all campuses. The campaign began in July 2000 and is scheduled to end in 2007.

Public Affairs Media Contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu