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Keeping the country healthy: The government's role in public health

Leah Landry

When New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed banning large sugary drinks, there was a lot of public backlash. But this country actually has quite a history of government intervening in the name of public health. Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen, hosts of WRVO's weekly health show "Take Care," spoke with nutrition policy expert Tracy Fox who argues this kind of intervention is sometimes warranted - and often works.

Linda Lowen: Some think that Bloomberg's actions are radical but government intervention in the name of public health has been with us for quite a long time, decades in fact, since the 1940s and it's in every school district in the country. Tell us about that.

Tracy Fox: The standards for the school lunch program have been around since the '40s and that's because right after World War II, the military leaders kind of recognized that they were having a problem with recruiting and one of the main reasons why it was really difficult to recruit soldiers at that time into the military was because they were malnourished. So President Truman, actually, signed into law the National School Lunch Act which, for the first time, set really basic standards for what should be served in school and made those lunches available to everyone. So today we still have those standards, not the same standards, but we have updated standards that we've had in place for the last 60 years.

Lorraine Rapp: What was your reaction when you heard about Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal in regard to the amount of sugary soda?

Tracy Fox: I think it's really important to have public health agencies and leaders recognize the importance of the role that government does play, and can play, especially when there is a health care crisis like obesity that we're facing. So I for one am for really opening up this debate and making it be something that's looked at as a very serious health issue. And I know it's easy to make light of oh, you know, putting a cap on the amount of beverages but I do think it has caused a more serious level to the conversation that is needed and that is that the health care costs in this country are tipping close to 150 billion dollars a year and a lot of that comes through public funding of Medicare, Medicaid, the military. If then, I think we're going to have to think outside of the box.

Linda Lowen: What other municipalities have intervened in the name of public health? Where else has this happened and has it been successful?

Tracy Fox: Philadelphia has really done a lot of work with trying to get healthy retail outlets, grocery stores, in places in which there was very little access to healthy foods. They've done a lot in their schools as well. Mississippi has done a lot. Their state board of education passed strong standards to really limit the amount of junk food in schools. And California has also set strong standards. And in those places we are seeing decreases. Some better than others, but decreases in obesity rates among children.

Linda Lowen: A lot of the initiatives that you've mentioned involve children, and I wonder if it is an easier sell to the public. Is that a harder sell when it involves adults and adult choice?

Tracy Fox: Tracy: I think, like you said, that it is, you know, a little bit easier to protect children. They really do deserve the best of the best through their growing years so I do think it is a little harder sell for adults, but on the other hand, we are also seeing the medical costs playing out to a much greater degree in their adult years.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show on Sundays at 6:30 p.m.  

Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.