August 30, 2014
Mayor\
Be Well

Mayor's Mission Helps Health

by John Swartzberg, M.D.  |  

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City left office last January, but his public health initiatives live on—not just in the Big Apple, but also in other cities and states and even other countries. Depending on your political perspective, you may remember him either as a great reformer whose policies will improve the health of millions of people for years to come or as the nanny-in-residence who deprived New Yorkers of their rights to live and eat freely. I am in the former camp, for sure.

Enacted over his 12 years in office, Bloomberg’s landmark public health programs have sought to put the kibosh (as they say in New York) on high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. They include a ban on smoking in restaurants, bars and parks; a ban on heart-damaging trans fats in restaurants; mandatory calorie postings in chain restaurants; and, under the NYC-led National Salt Reduction Initiative, a call for voluntary sodium reductions from the food industry. Such policies have set an example for the rest of the country: California and other states followed with their own mandatory calorie postings, for instance, while trans fat bans are spreading quickly.

A few of my other favorite programs under Bloomberg’s watch led to greater availability of fresh produce in poor neighborhoods, increased colon cancer screenings and restaurant sanitation grades, not to mention an expansion of bike lanes and green spaces. Not all has gone his way, however. Notably, his proposed ban on super-sized sugary beverages was rejected by the courts—but it sure got a lot of people talking about the issue. And it seems to have been the impetus— along with Bloomberg’s personal financial campaign backing—for Mexico’s new tax on sugary drinks and other high-calorie junk foods.

So, how’d he do? According to the mayor’s office, 300,000 fewer New Yorkers smoke today than in 2002. More than 20 companies, including Kraft, Goya and Subway, are on target for reducing sodium in their foods by 25 percent by 2015, while the amount of trans fat in restaurant foods has declined. Heart disease deaths decreased by 32 percent in the city, and life expectancy increased by three years. It’s hard to know how much all of this has to do with Bloomberg’s initiatives, since such improvements are a national trend, but it is encouraging news nevertheless.

Of course, many people don’t believe that regulating lifestyle choices is the role of government. And Bloomberg's heavy-handed tactics—as some have referred to them—won’t by themselves solve the obesity epidemic. Still, despite initial protest against some of the policies, New York City is a healthier place today than it was 12 years ago, with its bars and restaurants free of tobacco smoke, its fast-food fries free of trans fats and its streets increasingly filled with cyclists. My colleagues there can attest to that. I commend the mayor for recognizing that local government can— and should—play a role in protecting and improving public health.

As Bloomberg continues his public health pursuits in his post-mayoral years (backed by substantial financial support from his foundation), I can’t help but envy the $1.1 billion he has given to Johns Hopkins University, whose School of Public Health now bears his name. If only we here, at our own School of Public Health at UC Berkeley, had such a generous benefactor.