Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Myth Making and Health: New York’s Health Commissioner Will Head CDC

New York’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Frieden, will be leaving town to become director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Frieden tried hard to reconfigure the role of the health official in 21st-century America.  He seemed to have recognized that health is on the main stage now in the policy theater.  And he’s been searching for a new role for the public-health physician.  As DemFromCT points out in yesterday’s DailyKos, Frieden handled the swine flu crisis well.  All good.

Still, it’s hard to applaud Frieden for his work during his tenure as commissioner here in NY.  Perhaps he couldn’t stand in the way of the moral juggernaut driven by mayor Mike Bloomberg.  Or maybe Frieden’s medical focus makes him share some of Bloomberg’s fervid disdain for the nasty bits of urban life — the smoking, the quick noshes, the hook-ups — even if not the bluenose moralism.  What can’t be denied is that Dr. Frieden and Mayor Bloomberg together promoted the myth that bad health is purely a matter of bad behavior.

The myth was an alarming break with the reality of the real causes of poor health, but it played well.  There was the ban on smoking in bars, the ban on serving trans fats, the constant hectoring about what we eat and how much of it, and the finger wagging about AIDS “complacency” and our failure to use condoms.  There were the restaurant closings on account of violating the health code (that was after the City’s health department had been embarrassed by media reports of rats in a number of food establishments).  Those were aspects of the stagecraft that has characterized the Bloomberg reign in NYC, but none of them had much impact on the city’s health.

What there wasn’t, under Bloomberg-Frieden, was any discussion of how to improve health through providing better housing – and Dr. Frieden seems to have raised no objection to the mayor’s new plan to charge homeless people rent for staying in city shelters. In fact, housing was off the health agenda entirely – although it has always been on Bloomberg’s, usually in the form of deals that would sell to developers middle-income housing or the land it stands on — even though decent housing would arguably have made more difference to the health of more people than trans fats ever would.

Neither did Dr. Frieden ever publicly argue for funding for public schools or prep-for-college programs on the grounds that education translates into better health.   Great opportunities for real change were passed up in favor of preserving the myth of behavioral risk.

In the recent crisis over swine flu, Frieden was statesmanlike – and we have to hope he’ll show similar circumspection and gravitas as CDC Director.   At Effect Measure, revere points out the need for good management at CDC.  But we also have to hope that, once free of Bloomberg, Dr. Frieden doesn’t bring the same moralistic sermonizing to the matter of disease control.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, May 16th, 2009 at 10:07 am and is filed under Behavior, Myths, public health, Risk. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “Myth Making and Health: New York’s Health Commissioner Will Head CDC”

[…] anti-smoking policy are not without critics. Here’s a recent blog by (occasional pen pal) Philip Alcabes on the topic: Still, it’s hard to applaud Frieden for his work during his tenure as […]

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