After two re-elections and almost twelve years in power, the reign of Michael Bloomberg as Mayor of New York City is coming to an end. And in typical Bloomberg style, he’s pissed off a few more people before he goes.
Bloomberg has just passed a bill banning the sale of tobacco to those under the age of 21. This bill is the first of its kind in the States. The aim is to deter adolescents from picking up the habit at the age where they’re most likely to become addicted. “This is an issue of whether we are going to kill people,” Bloomberg said in a ceremony at City Hall. “People who raise the economic argument really ought to look in the mirror and be ashamed.”
His list of enemies will continue to grow long after he has departed his post, but you can’t argue that his regulations have not already saved thousands of lives.
The questions remains, however, whether his controversial policies and plans will continue his legacy or be flippantly fed to the subway rats? To quote leading bioethicist Lawrence O. Gostin’s Hasting‘s Center Report, “Was he an urban innovator or meddling nanny?”
Those who’ve read my other Care2 articles on the topic would be well aware I’m on the side of urban innovator. However, that’s not to say he wasn’t ”nannying” the State either; but it’s exactly what our society needs right now.
A Look Back at Mayor Bloomberg’s Controversial Health Policies
Removal of Trans Fats
In 2006, all restaurants had to serve foods that contained less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, as they “provide no health benefit and are unsafe at any level.” Naturally, this pioneer policy met stern opposition from restaurants and civil libertarians. The argument was that removal of trans fats would raise food prices, affecting employment, and negatively affect taste. Sure enough once the law was passed, there were no attributable changes in price nor perceptible alterations in taste — just much healthier products. Other states and eventually countries followed suit, as “low trans fat has now become a widely accepted norm,” writes Gostin.
Bloomberg’s diabetes monitoring program was also an innovative new system launched to combat the spread of diabetes. The NYC diabetes rate had shot up almost three-fold in ten years, up to 9.2 percent in 2004. Bloomberg had laboratories built in the city with the sole purpose of measuring blood sugar levels of diabetics and actively sending those scores to the health department, where physicians had access to up-to-date records. “The program is one of the first uses of surveillance that not only tracks a chronic, noncommunicable disease but also links the data to concrete interventions,” Gostin writes. “It bridges the historic divide between public health and medicine, thus offering pathways for future programs.”
You know the calorie count on fast-food restaurant menus and menu boards? That was Bloomberg, too. Whilst it has been argued that the labeling is not overly effective, experts agree that if we can give the numbers some context, such as “450 calories = 80 minutes of walking,” they will significantly affect consumer choice. What’s more, the rest of the nation is following in these footsteps. “Despite the scientific uncertainty, many cities have followed New York’s model. Nationally, the Affordable Care Act will require all chains with more than twenty locations to post calorie counts and recommended daily intake,” writes Gostin.
Ban on Large Sodas
Easily the most controversial (and subsequently most famous) policy of Bloomberg’s is the ban on large soda portions, which is still being decided by the New York high court. Gostin writes: “The mayor relied on science to support a creative, untested strategy: sugary drinks deliver empty calories, with a direct relationship to obesity, while portion sizes have grown exponentially. Society cannot know what works until commonsense ideas are tested.” When the old system is failing you, your friends and your family, it’s time to try something new, don’t you think?
It’s also worth noting Mayor Bloomberg’s impact on smoking rates in NYC during his tenure. As a result of his tobacco policies, Gostin calculated, “Between 2002 and 2011, the rate of smoking fell from 21.5 percent to 41.8 percent among adults and from 17.5 percent to 8.5 percent among youth.” Bloomberg implemented a wide range of policies that complemented each other, combining so effectively that smoking was de-normalized. The brand new ban for buyers under the age of 21 will surely reduce the smoking percentage even further.
Gostin concludes that although Mayor Bloomberg’s public health policies had numerous critics and mixed successes, we’re fortunate that he had the vision and, above all, the courage to actually put them in place. “It is rather a sober and necessary response to an epidemiological transition to life-style related diseases,” he writes. “The public health community should take time to recognize and defend its champions — and Mayor Bloomberg undoubtedly is among our most courageous and creative advocates for a healthier and safer population.”
Perhaps the end of his term in charge is just the tip of the iceberg, and his public health policies will remain front and center. What do you think?