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Bloomberg leaves rich public health legacy as mayor of New York City

NEW YORK--Michael Bloomberg steered New York City through economic recession, a catastrophic hurricane and the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but he may always be remembered, accurately or not, as the mayor who wanted to ban the Big Gulp — a super-sized soda drink.

After 12 years, Bloomberg will leave office on Dec. 31 with a unique record as a public health crusader who attacked cigarettes, artery-clogging fats and big sugary drinks with as much zeal as most mayors go after crack dens and graffiti.

And while Bloomberg's audacious initiatives weren't uniformly successful, often leading to court challenges and criticisms that he was turning New York into a “nanny state,” experts say they helped reshape just how far a city government can go to protect people from an unhealthy lifestyle.

“He has been a transformative leader,” said Dr. Linda Fried, dean of Columbia University's school of public health. “He has created a model for how to improve a city's health.”

Coming into office as a billionaire businessman who made his fortune selling data to Wall Street, Bloomberg was accustomed to using hard, cold research to drive decisions, and it was an approach he used effectively on matters of public health.

Bloomberg pushed to ban smoking in indoor public spaces and prohibit cigarette sales to anyone under 21. He got artificial trans-fat banned from restaurant food — an action that led fast food giants like McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts to change their recipes rather than lose access to the New York market.

He got restaurant chains to start posting calorie counts on their menus, lobbied food processors to add less salt to their products and got city schools to start serving healthier meals. The city distributed millions of free condoms, emblazoned with an “NYC” logo, in an attempt to cut down on teen pregnancy and HIV transmission. One of his pet initiatives essentially created a new public transportation system built around bicycles.

Bloomberg also put new data collection and analytical tools in place to track all the new policies.

Results

Among the results: The adult smoking rate has declined from 21.5 percent in 2002 to 15.5 percent today. Childhood obesity rates inched down among schoolchildren. Life expectancy has increased in the city by three years since Bloomberg took office, compared to 1.8 years in the rest of the country.

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