Trained as a molecular biologist at The Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Medical School, Winsten served as co-editor of the three-volume Origins of Human Cancer with Nobel laureate James D. Watson and Dean Howard H. Hiatt of the Harvard School of Public Health (1977). Winsten’s three-year study, Science and the Media: The Boundaries of Truth, published in 1985, was hailed by the Columbia Journalism Review as a “landmark study on the relationship between science and the press.”
In 1985, Winsten was appointed founding director of the Center for Health Communication (CHC) at the Harvard School of Public Health. The first academic center for health communication, CHC developed strategies to harness the power of mass communication to advance the public’s health. In 1990, Winsten was named to the endowed position of Frank Stanton Director of CHC. He served in that position, and as an Associate Dean of the School, for 30 years..
In 1988, the CHC launched the U.S. Designated Driver Campaign as a new component of the Nation’s strategy for preventing alcohol-related traffic fatalities and injuries. This initiative demonstrated how the "designated driver" concept, which had its origin in the Nordic countries, could be imported and rapidly diffused through American society via mass communication, catalyzing a fundamental shift in social norms relating to driving-after-drinking. The New York Times reported the campaign’s launch in a front-page story on August 31, 1988.
The campaign garnered broad, sustained support within the Hollywood creative community. At Harvard's request, writers and producers depicted the use of designated drivers in fictional story lines of more than 160 prime-time TV episodes during four television seasons. The Writers Guild of America West, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences strongly supported the effort. With an annual budget of $300,000, the campaign generated over $100 million per year in donated airtime for the designated driver message.
Within four years of the campaign’s launch in late-1988, the Roper Poll found that 52% of Americans under 30 had served as a designated driver or been driven home by one, as had 37% of all Americans; among frequent drinkers, 54% had been driven home by a designated driver. Reflecting the concept’s new-found prominence, the term “designated driver” appeared in the Random House College Dictionary in 1991. Alcohol-related traffic fatalities declined by 25% between 1988-1992, compared to 0% change in the preceding three years; non-alcohol-related traffic fatalities fell by only 5% between 1988-1992. The campaign is credited as an important factor, among other factors, in the downward trend.
A 2002 report from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation stated, “The National Designated Driver Campaign developed by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Health Communication, is widely considered to be the first successful effort to partner with the Hollywood community to promote health messages in prime-time programming.” The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported, “Many grant makers say it was the success of the campaign that persuaded them that skillful work with news and entertainment media can bring about social change.”
Winsten co-chaired the communications task force for the Presidents Summit for America’s Future held in Philadelphia in April 1997. Attended by President Clinton and chaired by Ret. General Colin Powell, the gathering challenged the Nation to make healthy youth development a major priority. The Summit highlighted recent research on the benefits of mentoring programs for young people from underprivileged circumstances. As an outgrowth of the Summit, CHC launched a media initiative to help greatly expand the availability of volunteer mentors.. The New York Times reported, “The ability of the communications industry to persuade Americans to modify their behavior for what are deemed laudable causes is being tested again by an ambitious project to sell the concept of mentoring. It is being brought to you by the same people who successfully sold the concept of the designated driver.” From 1997-2015, CHC served as the communications arm of the U.S. youth mentoring movement in collaboration with MENTOR: National Mentoring Partnership. The annual number of young people matched with mentors through local community programs grew from 300,000 in 1997 to over 3.5 million a decade later.
CHC also developed and published recommendations for the design of health communication campaigns, created the first mid-career journalism fellowship program in public health, and sponsored conferences and courses on health communication. In 2020, Winsten was named Director of Strategic Media Initiatives at the School. Winsten acknowledges five influential mentors: Dr. Frank Stanton, CBS president; Grant Tinker, NBC chairman; humanitarian/philanthropist Ray Chambers; Dr. Howard H. Hiatt, former dean of the Harvard School of Public Health; and Winsten’s father, Dr. Walter A. Winsten, who helped develop new methods to enrich uranium isotopes on the Manhattan Project and later was Professor of Chemistry at Hofstra University.