What genetically modified mosquitoes and soda bans can teach us about framing health issues

Genetically modified mosquitoes recently provided a case study in the importance of understanding how opposition groups frame arguments. The tactics of a small but vocal minority opposition to public health interventions is proving to be important in combating the spread of misinformation.

On Nov. 8, 2016, voters in Key Haven, Fla. and residents of the Florida Keys cast separate ballots on the same issue: a referendum to approve or oppose the release of genetically modified Aedes aegypti in Key Haven. In a surprising turn of events, the results were split. While Florida Keys voters were in favor of the release, Key Haven residents did not want the experiment taking place in their backyard.

At the center of the debate is an innovative project straight out of science fiction. The research aims to reduce the Aedes aegypti population through gene mutation in male, non-biting mosquitoes. These genetic modifications cause the offspring of modified mosquitoes to die. Mosquito-borne viruses with devastating health effects, such as Zika, have increased the urgency of this project.

The study will still take place, just not in Key Haven. In many respects, continuing the study elsewhere is a loss for the opposition. Despite this, opponents are now focusing on how they can frame this result to their advantage.

To the opposition, successfully blocking the intervention in Key Haven is proof of what they already suspected: Residents do not want these experiments taking place in their neighborhoods.

Empowered by the referendum results, the opposition is now using this information to buttress their legitimacy and derail the project entirely. To do this, they are attempting to control how the arguments are framed as a way of controlling the public discourse.

Their primary argument is the potential and unknown environmental impact of the novel genetic technology being used in this project.  Moreover, they believe that supporters of the genetically modified mosquito intervention are manipulating public opinion through the Zika virus epidemic, town hall meetings, and public surveys on the issue.

Lastly, the opposition claims that by continuing with the project in a different location, supporters such as the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District and Oxitec, the company manufacturing genetically modified mosquitoes, are ignoring the stated wishes of voters.

In response, the opposition is utilizing the FDA’s development of a 30-day comment period on the project to voice their concerns.

Framing has proven to be a significant issue affecting the success of public health initiatives.  Another, prominent example of the opposition shaping how communities view public health issues is New York’s sugary drinks portion cap.  In this case, the opposition to the portion cap framed the measure as a “soda ban” orchestrated by a “nanny state.”

Although the NYC Board of Health tried to respond to the multiple criticisms of the portion cap, even they referenced the measure as a “ban.” By adopting the language of the opposition, supporters had to focus on damage control instead of spreading meaningful and accurate information about the initiative.

Framing public health issues in clever but deceptive ways is proving to be a successful tactic against implementing public health interventions. Genetically modified mosquitoes and soda bans illustrate the importance of studying how opposition groups frame their arguments.

Learning from these deceptive practices can help public health professionals educate and inform the public about health initiatives. Recognizing common opposition tactics will go a long way to improving public understanding of health interventions and, ultimately, increasing their acceptance in our communities.

– By Hien Piotrowski, senior at Rice University and working with Dr. Stephanie Morain as part of the Health, Humanism and Society Scholars program

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