A century ago, most local health departments concentrated their efforts on fighting infectious diseases like cholera, polio and tuberculosis. But today, many health departments have a very different focus: cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, some of America’s leading killers. Fighting these diseases often means promoting changes in lifestyle and behavior, and no health department has done that more aggressively than New York City’s.
Under former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, New York’s health commissioners — first Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, and then Dr. Thomas A. Farley — took on smoking, sugary drinks, sodium, trans fats and binge drinking. Those battles weren’t always successful. A state court struck downthe city’s controversial soda tax initiative, and critics complained that New York City was becoming a “nanny” state.
But Dr. Farley, who served as New York’s health commissioner from 2009 to 2014, says the city’s efforts helped demonstrate that the key to eradicating lifestyle-related diseases is by changing environments — making bad choices harder and good ones easier. He makes a case for this approach in his latest book, “Saving Gotham: Billionaire Mayor, Activist Doctors, and the Fight for Eight Million Lives,” which shares the behind-the-scenes story of the Bloomberg administration’s radical approach to fighting chronic disease.