Whipping New York into shape


For all the Californians who thought they’d cornered the market on healthy living, meet Michael Bloomberg, the 108th mayor of New York.

Since he took charge, the city has pioneered a raft of regulations to get its citizens to be healthier — or at least realize they’re slowly killing themselves. The 68-year-old billionaire’s campaign against death-by-preventable-disease has also spearheaded a national movement.

On his watch, the city banned cigarettes in bars, put fresh produce in poor neighborhoods and went after trans fats like they were deadbeat dads. He also remapped great swaths of Broadway to favor walkers and bikers. And this spring, the mayor declared war — on salt.

Now Bloomberg is hinting that he wants to ban smoking in parks and on beaches, even as the city faces yet another lawsuit by tobacco companies and local retailers. It would invalidate a requirement that every deli and bodega selling cigarettes post signs at the cash register warning about the dangers of smoking. One sign shows a damaged lung, another a decayed tooth, and a third a stroke-corroded brain.

During his eight years in office, Bloomberg’s pugnacious approach to public health has infuriated tavern owners, restaurateurs, motorists and the barons of Big Tobacco. It has also earned him the admiration of those who want to see not just New Yorkers but all Americans live longer and better.

“Mayor Bloomberg is an extraordinary public health advocate,” said Michael Jacobson, co-founder of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. “No other mayor or governor or even federal official comes close.”

Bloomberg’s critics call him a first-class bully intent on restricting freedom of choice and restraining commerce. They rank him and his eat-your-spinach collaborator, former New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden, as Olympians of the Nanny State.

“The trouble with Bloomberg is that his point of view ignores the pleasure people get out of food and assumes everyone wants to pursue a healthy lifestyle,” said J. Justin Wilson of the Center for Consumer Freedom, an advocacy group partially funded by the food and restaurant industry. “He’s using his power to enshrine a singular point of view.”

At first glance, a man who salts his pizza might not seem like the perfect candidate for waging war against a nation’s addiction to sugar, salt, fat and lethargy. But Bloomberg, a reformed smoker who wound up with a school of public health named for him after a hefty donation, is apparently capable of practicing what he preaches.

“You see all through his life that when he makes up his mind to do something, he’s very rigorous and self-disciplined,” said Joyce Purnick, author of “Mike Bloomberg — The Mogul and the Mayor.” “When he finds out something is not good for him, he wants to stop others.”

From the time he took office in 2002, Bloomberg’s public health appointees began rolling out initiatives that if presented all at once might have had him run out of town. Instead, they were served up one by one through multiple regulations accompanied by eye-catching paid ads.

First, the city banned smoking in bars and restaurants. California was in the vanguard on this issue and earlier mayors, including Ed Koch, had made it a priority. But Bloomberg jumped in even though his minions warned against it because he was low in the polls.

Next, New York’s 24,000 restaurants were ordered to stop using bad oils, known as trans fats, in their kitchens and baked goods. California and 16 other jurisdictions followed with similar bans. Then the city forced chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus. Other cities followed.

More recently, the mayor and City Council teamed up to make 1,000 additional licenses for fresh-food carts available in low-income areas. The city also issued an edict that tens of thousands of city-funded meals had to adhere to nutritional standards. Even convicts now get whole grains and skim milk.

Unable to raise taxes on sugary drinks — only the state Legislature here can, and it won’t — the city posted stomach-turning ads on subways asking, “Are you pouring on the pounds?” Videos showed cans gurgling fat into a man’s mouth.

Now, with 30 jurisdictions from across the country on his wing, Bloomberg is challenging industry to cut sodium by 20% in packaged food and restaurants by 2014.

In the same way California’s emissions standards influenced change in the auto industry, New York under Bloomberg is trying to lead in the area of health. His national salt initiative, Wilson said, has industry leaders concerned, if not disgusted, that government is pushing against consumer choice.

“If the city of Louisville declared they were at the forefront of a national moment, they’d be ignored,” Wilson said. “We now have a mayor and city marshaling national policy and short-circuiting every other municipality, never mind consumers.”

Bloomberg has advantages that other elected officials might envy. He has a $1.7-billion public health department; he can elude local politicians by directing policy through a board of health chaired by a health commissioner he appointed. Bloomberg, who self-financed his last campaign with $90 million in pocket change, also doesn’t have to worry much about offending potential contributors, including industry lobbyists.

“His wealth liberates him from the concerns of other elected officials,” Purnick said.

In the time he has left in City Hall, Bloomberg has made it clear he’ll continue to press for change. In a weekly radio address this month, he announced an initiative to improve New York’s air quality by capping sulfur amounts allowed in a commonly used heating oil.

“From the food we eat to the air we breathe — we are doing everything we can to make New York an even healthier place to live,” he said. “New Yorkers deserve nothing less.”

He says his initiatives have influenced more New Yorkers to go to the doctor regularly and have colonoscopies; his health department says the city has about 350,000 fewer smokers than when Bloomberg took office. But obesity, diabetes, drug-related deaths and the cost of care have only grown, as they have across the country.

Bloomberg believers would say that measuring the effect of a lone fruit stand in the South Bronx or an elongated bike path along the Hudson River takes time, and that at the very least he has inspired New Yorkers to be aware of the virtues of, say, a piece of broiled chicken as much as the romance of a Nathan’s hot dog.

Or almost, anyway.