the idea of health promotion predates the use of the actual term. however, the incorporation of this idea and the practice of health promotion were influenced by the canadian health reform movement, which echoed the voices of many others who were concerned with the influence of the physical and social environment on health. this provided the basis for the world health organization to launch a series of conferences beginning with the alma ata conference in 1977 and followed by the ottawa conference, from which resulted the first international document on health promotion, known as the ottawa charter. although health promotion has been the subject of a wide range of studies, the concept is still not well understood and its explicit practice is limited. health conferences have been important for keeping the notion of equity in health alive, while the gap between the rhetoric of these conferences and practice remains to be bridged. however, the rise of social epidemiology and the development of the concept of social capital for health could bring new insights into traditional epidemiology in order to narrow this gap. the purpose of this paper is to elucidate these concepts and to describe the roles they play in public health in order to stimulate further debate.