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Harris awarded major national grant

Professor Priscilla Harris has been awarded a grant through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Public Health Law Research program to study dental health and law in central Appalachia.

The grant "enhances ASL's profile and shows that ASL is recognized as an institution that can make a difference," Harris said. It will blend the law, ASL's community focus, and public health, she noted.

The study will focus on what legal practices impact the consumption and purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages and citric acid drinks that adversely affect oral health. It will generate original data from dentists and residents of central Appalachia concerning oral health, the consumption and purchase of the drinks, and the social acceptability of legal interventions restricting purchases.

"After moving to Appalachia, I noticed carts full of soda at the grocery stores, and I started to wonder what the correlation was between soda consumption and tooth decay," Harris said. "I began to do research and found studies linking dental erosion and dental cavities with the consumption of certain beverages."

Dr. J. Anthony von Fraunhofer, a leading researcher of enamel erosion due to soft drinks, has helped Harris with the grant. "At present we have only anecdotal data that enamel erosion is common in (Appalachia), but we do not know the seriousness of the problem or what might be the leading causes," he said. The surveys compiled as part of this study will help shed light on the problem, he said.

ASL students will be able to take an independent study course to learn to conduct interviews and prepare surveys for the study. They will work with graduate students from East Tennessee State University's College of Public Health. "ASL students will share their knowledge of the law, and the ETSU-CPH students will share their knowledge of public health," Harris said.

Edward J. Kelly, general counsel for ETSU and an adjunct professor of law at ASL, cited the project as an important collaboration between the schools. "The synergy created by the combination of law and health policy will (benefit) not only the two institutions involved, but also the entire Appalachian region."

Dean Randy Wycoff and Professor James Anderson of ETSU-CPH also have been helpful, Harris noted.

The study is among 13 new projects funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on the public health impacts of laws and regulations. The projects focus on issues such as lead exposure, vaccinations and emergency preparedness. The grants total more than $3.4 million.

The Public Health Law Research program aims to promote effective regulatory, legal and policy solutions to improve public health. The program is part of the foundation's public health strategy, aimed at ensuring that all Americans have quality public health services and policies.

"The results of these studies are helping us build the evidence that policy-makers can use to understand how laws and regulations affect public health-not just laws aimed at specific public health issues," said Michelle Larkin, director of the public health team at the foundation.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is the nation's largest philanthropy organization devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans.