Harvard Group Works With 90210 Producers

Last night's episode of Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210" was the first product of a new Harvard-based initiative to educate teenagers about eating disorders.

For the past seven years, the Harvard Center for Health Communication of the School of Public Health has collaborated with television producers to integrate health messages, on such issues as the dangers of drinking and driving, into popular shows such as "L.A. Law," "Growing Pains" and "Cheers."

The messages range from one or two lines of dialogue about the dangers of smoking to a complete episode abut drunk driving.

Yesterday's show inaugurated a series of "Beverly Hills" episodes in which Kelly, played by actress Jennifer Garth, is obsessed with making herself thin by taking diet pills.

In a future episode of NBC's "Blossom," another teen-oriented program, Blossom refers a friend suspected of having an eating disorder to a past bulimic, who explains her cycle of chronic dieting and purging.


Jay A. Winsten, an associate dean at the SPH and director of the Center, first launched the television initiative seven years ago with assistance from Frank Stanton, former president of CBS, and Grant Tinker, former chair of NBC's board.

"Nothing can begin to rival [television programming] in potential impact," said Winsten. "People learn behavior through modeling of [the characters'] behavior."

So far Winsten said he's pleased with the progress.

"We've been gratified by how excited the creative community in Hollywood has been in collaborating with us," said Winsten. "It's been a successful partnership from the start and they've stuck with us."

The eating disorder television blitz is just the latest initiative of Operation Breakthrough, a project aimed at "breaking through" the invisible barrier that frequently prevents people from helping their friends overcome health problems.

"The goal of Operation Breakthrough is to help create a social climate which comes to view interpersonal intervention as highly valued social acts," said Winsten.

Winsten emphasized that the project doesn't aim to change social perceptions, but instead encourages television programs to reflect an existing change in the social norm.

"We're adding momentum to changes already underway," he said.

The Center uses mass media to educate people about health problems caused by personal behavior and lifestyle, including drug abuse, smoking, alcohol abuse and AIDS.

The Center's most famous project is the Harvard Alcohol Project, which publicized use of designated drivers to avoid drinking and driving accidents. Project organizers convinced television networks, beer companies and Presidents Bush and Clinton to make messages advocating the designated driver principle.

Winsten is planning to incorporate domestic violence prevention into television programming next