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ASPPH Statement on CDC Banned Words

The December 16 Washington Post featured an article about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) policy and budget analysts being told that they should no longer use seven words or phrases in budget documents. The source of the order is uncertain, but appears to have come from either the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) or the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The forbidden terms are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” The Post further reported on censorship concerns at other agencies on December 17 and on the following day provided additional details on the guidance to CDC staff.

On December 21, the Post reported, “…the effort to disappear certain language and replace it with other terms is much broader, sparking resistance from career officials in multiple federal agencies, outside experts and congressional Democrats.”

The paper reported, “In late summer, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention issued a document to employees and contractors bearing a column of words and phrases to be avoided, alongside a column of acceptable alternatives. The one-page ‘language guidance’ document recommends using ‘all youth’ instead of ‘underserved youth,’ referring to crime as a ‘public issue/public concern’ rather than a ‘public health issue/public health concern’ …”

Dr. Laura Magana, ASPPH President and CEO, on December 16 wrote to OMB Director Mr. Mick Mulvaney about the CDC censorship report. She said that if the Post report is accurate, “it is an Orwellian attack on scientific integrity.” She asked OMB director Mr. Mick Mulvaney to “immediately and publicly withdraw this censorship order regardless of where or how it originated. Further, we ask you to explain to the American people what steps you are taking to ensure that such censorship will not occur in the future.” Dr. Magana also wrote to the leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, asking them to “investigate this apparent censorship effort, since it directly relates to the information provided to [appropriators] by Federal agencies. Further, we hope you will take appropriate action to ensure that such efforts are not attempted in the future by the current or any other Administration.” ASPPH also joined more than 300 other groups in sending a letter on Thursday to the Acting HHS Secretary on the matter.

On December 17, CDC director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald sent out a tweet that read, “I want to assure you there are no banned words at CDC. We will continue to talk about all our important public health programs.”

On Capitol Hill, the ranking Democrats on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees sent a letter to the Acting HHS Secretary asking very pointed questions about the policy and asking for any related documents. They asked for a formal response by January 2. Additionally, 88 House members wrote to the Acting HHS Secretary on the issue, as did another group of Senators. Lastly, the Senate Finance Committee’s confirmation hearing for Mr. Alex Azar, current nominee for secretary of HHS, was postponed this week and will now be held in January, it is very likely he will be asked about the matter.

The furor over the reported banning of seven words and phrases in CDC budget documents continues to reverberate. Many of our members have issued public statements about the matter as well – you can read them below: