Inside the Bloomberg Public Health Toolbox

Mailman study finds Bloomberg legacy of public health policies that improved the health and increased the life expectancy of New Yorkers.

December 23, 2013

December 19, 2013

As Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s term comes to a close, the latest research conducted by the Mailman School of Public Health indicates that he leaves a legacy of ambitious public health policies—from pioneering restrictions on trans fats and smoking to investments in green spaces and bicycle lanes—that have improved the health and increased the life expectancy of New Yorkers. The Mailman study takes a behind-the-scenes look at the Bloomberg Administration to evaluate the evidence and build public support for improving health in the city—which also can serve as a blueprint for health policy in cities across the country.

The researchers interviewed 27 current and former civil servants, elected officials, advocates, and staff of think tanks and of interest groups familiar with Bloomberg-era policies, with a focus on the prevention of chronic disease, including trans-fat use in restaurants, transportation policies, and tobacco-control policies, as well as opponents of the mayor’s policies. The resulting article in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Public Health Services and Systems Research reports on the themes that emerged.

“The notable aspect of the Bloomberg approach is not just the high-profile public health policies but also the way they went about developing, evaluating, and advocating for the policies,” says Miriam J. Laugesen, PhD,  lead author and assistant professor of health policy and management. “In addition to learning from the policies themselves, urban leaders should look at how those policy decisions were made, particularly how scientific evidence can help make good policy.”

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has a personal interest in public health, and interviewees described him as a “linchpin” for policy and “willing to take risks.” However, the mayor’s support was contingent on data. “He was not a cheerleader for all proposals: staff learned that he would scrutinize their data before embarking on new policies, and in some cases he would ask questions that required fundamental revisions,” the researchers write.

Five Key Tools—A Model for Other Cities

Dr. Laugesen and co-author Kimberly R. Isett, PhD, associate professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech, identified five strategies used by New York City policymakers:

1.    Rigorous appraisal of published studies. Health officials didn’t limit themselves to top-line findings from studies but looked “under the hood” at the methodology and granular data.

2.    Collection of health-survey data. Survey data at the local level provided an evidence-based foundation for developing interventions and served as a benchmark for evaluating their effectiveness.

3.    Shoe-leather research. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene conducted smaller-scale research to tailor findings to local contexts and to make health issues more concrete to the public.

4.    Inter-agency collaboration. Collaborations helped broaden available data and policy options. Example: The Departments of Police, Health, Parks and Recreation, and Transportation collaborated to research bicycle fatalities and guide the creation of bicycle lanes.

5.    Research dissemination. From 2004 to 2008, city health officials published more than 300 articles in peer-reviewed public health and medical journals. They also used opinion pieces and commentaries to reframe the issue.

“Especially with innovative policies, it is necessary to develop an information base and make policies that are evidence based,” says Dr. Laugesen.

While ceertain policies were challenged in the courts, with some questioning the depth of evidence behind policies like the ban on trans fats or the link between soda consumption and obesity, interviewees did not question the quality of health data collected by the City.

Strengthening public health policymaking on the local level is particularly important, as it is there that innovative health policies like bans on smoking and trans fats are most likely to succeed, says Dr. Laugesen. “I would surmise that there’s going to be more support for policies at the local level with local leadership where it is not seen as imposed from outside,” she says. “Cities are uniquely able to bring people together to change the environment and shape our choices in support of health.”

Support for the study was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The article is one of a suite of research studies now under way at Columbia’s Mailman School, looking at health policies undertaken by the Bloomberg Administration. New York Community Trust has provided a grant to Gina Lovasi, Ryan Demmer, and Y. Claire Wang to look at how effective the policies were in preventing chronic disease in the city. (Drs. Lovasi and Demmer are assistant professors of epidemiology; Dr. Wang is assistant professor of health policy and management.) The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has also funded research conducted by Dr. Peter Muennig, associate professor of health policy and management, on life expectancy.  Adding to this portfolio of urban health policy research, Dr. Wang has published on the caloric impact of a 16-ounce portion size cap on sugar-sweetened beverages served in restaurants and on the potential impact of a tax on the beverages.

This article originally appeared on the Mailman School of Public Health website.