The Lankenau Institute for Medical Research
Thomas Farley, MD, MPH, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, believes community education is not enough to promote health in a society. Healthy changes to the landscape, or the ‘healthscape’ of a population is integral to the improvement of public health as a whole. Dr. Farley spoke about this theme throughout his public health lecture at Lankenau Medical Center and Haverford College, his former alma mater. His talk was sponsored by LIMR’s Center for Public Health Research, in conjunction with the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship
Dr. Farley focused on the effectiveness of aggressive health campaigns in New York City and why they have been successful. NYC’s Health Department, for example, has made significant strides in decreasing smoking among residents. This change and others, Dr. Farley noted, are due in large part to the environmental approaches enacted by the Health Department, such as cigarette tax hikes and an increase of smoke-free areas in the city. An annual no smoking campaign every March provides free call-in help to quit and a nicotine patch and gum giveaway.
Perhaps the biggest battle Dr. Farley’s department has waged has been against unhealthy eating. The NYC Health Department has created numerous progressive policies, counter-advertisements, and alterations in New York City’s physical environment to discourage residents from consuming high fat foods and sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs). There have been proposed soda taxes, viral videos about the health consequences of excessive sugary drink consumption, and ads touting the benefits of exercise with the slogan “making NYC your gym.”
With all of these aggressive health initiatives, other local and state governments have taken notice and followed suit; even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC plans to use the NYC Health Department’s YouTube video “Man Eating Sugar,” created for the “Pouring on the Pounds” campaign, as part of their national obesity prevention media initiative. The short ad shows a man devouring packets and packets of sugar at a diner counter. The other patrons are sipping sugary drinks, looking on in disgust, oblivious that they’re consuming just as much sugar. "Few of us would knowingly eat the 16 spoons full of sugar found in a typical 20-ounce sugary drink,” noted Dr. Farley. "This ad shows people are doing just that without recognizing it. Sugar sweetened beverages, with huge portion sizes and heavy advertising, are powering the obesity epidemic.”
Dr. Farley’s work is receiving both praise and criticism, most notably from the food industry. Nevertheless, his message is being heard and, even more importantly, seems to be working. According to an annual telephone survey, the percentage of New Yorkers who drank one or more sugary drinks a day fell 6% from 2007-2010. And over half of the NYC residents who watched the Health Department’s YouTube video about sugar said they decreased their consumption of SSBs as a result. As Dr. Farley and the Health Department strive to improve the healthscape of New York City, there is yet another reason to be encouraged. In the winter of 2011, the CDC reported that New York City’s childhood obesity rates dropped 1.2%, the largest decrease of all US cities.