Roosevelt House held a conversation celebrating the release of LETHAL BUT LEGAL: Corporations, Consumption and Protecting Public Health, the new book by Nicholas Freudenberg, Distinguished Professor of Public Health, Hunter College, and CUNY.
Dr. Freudenberg and Nancy Romer, Co-Founder and Chair, Governance Board, Brooklyn Food Coalition, discussed the issues raised in Lethal but Legal in a conversation moderated by Dr. Thomas A. Farley, former Commissioner of Health, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the 2014 Joan H. Tisch Distinguished Fellow in Public Health at Roosevelt House.
The night’s discussion examined the ways in which corporations have affected public health over the last century, and the long-term impact of corporate influence on public health in industrialized countries and now in developing regions. In Lethal but Legal Dr. Freudenberg documents as well the emerging movements that are challenging corporate dominance of the debates around public health, and in conversation with Ms. Romer and Dr. Farley will explore ways to strike a healthier balance between profit and protecting people, in New York and around the globe.
Three noted experts offered insight into the practical and effective action government — and individuals — may take to guarantee our right to safe food and good public health.
Nicholas Freudenberg is a Distinguished Professor of Public Health at Hunter College and the CUNY School of Public Health. His current work focuses on municipal policy responses to child obesity in various cities around the world including New York, London, Cape Town and Lisbon. His new book, Lethal but Legal: Corporations, Consumption and Protecting the Public Health, was released in February 2014.
Nancy Romer, a psychology professor at City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, has long focused on social change. During a 2006-2007 sabbatical spent volunteering in hurricane-devastated Louisiana – and then traveling to Bolivia to experience grassroots food activism firsthand – Romer became inspired to transform the way people produce, distribute and consume food.
Back at home, she organized 300 neighbors to launch a community-based food conference addressing problems with the current food system, which contributes to climate change and health problems, such as obesity and diabetes.
More than 3,000 people attended the 2009 Brooklyn Food Conference, which launched the Brooklyn Food Coalition. The conference offered more than 60 workshops aimed at attracting support for community gardens, food cooperatives, farmers’ markets, local farms, composting and policy change. The Brooklyn Food Coalition went on to work with New York’s city council to increase the consumption of locally grown food. In addition, the coalition has organized parent groups to improve school lunches and has collected thousands of signatures to support a more robust federal children’s health bill.
In April 2010, Romer met with First Lady Michelle Obama to discuss solutions to childhood obesity and health problems, and she has sparked companion food conferences in two other New York boroughs: Queens and the Bronx.
As Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Dr. Farley led some 6,000 employees and a budget of $1.5 billion. During his time as Health Commissioner, he advocated for groundbreaking public health policies in New York City, including making the city’s parks and beaches smoke-free, prohibiting price discounting of cigarettes, raising the legal sales age of tobacco to 21, capping the portion size of sugary drinks sold in restaurants at 16 ounces, and restricting the burning of air-polluting dirty fuels to heat buildings. During Dr. Farley’s time at the agency, the NYC Health Department led the National Salt Reduction Initiative, which has successfully worked with major food companies to reduce sodium levels in food nationwide. He also introduced letter-grading of restaurants based on sanitary inspections, which led to improvements in restaurant cleanliness and a decline in the city’s rate of salmonella infections.
Dr. Farley also used mass media to deliver powerful messages to promote health behaviors, including creating the “Pouring on the Pounds” sugary drink ads on subways and television, introducing the “Two Drinks Ago” campaign to reduce binge alcohol drinking, and developing a series of hard-hitting ads on the health consequences of smoking. During his tenure as Health Commissioner, mortality rates fell sharply and life expectancy rose far more quickly in New York City than in the rest of the nation.
A pediatrician by training, Dr. Farley began his public health career as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and later served as a medical officer at the Louisiana Office of Public Health. While there, he oversaw successful efforts to increase childhood immunization and control tuberculosis, HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.
Dr. Farley worked extensively in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, working with a CDC team on a long-term plan for rebuilding the city’s public health and healthcare infrastructure. Immediately prior to joining NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Dr. Farley was chair of the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
Dr. Farley earned his medical and public health degrees at Tulane University, and a BA in mathematics from Haverford College. He is widely published, with articles featured in leading medical journals, including The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, and the American Journal of Public Health. His body of research covers a wide range of topics, including Legionnaires’ disease, prevention of HIV/STDs, infant mortality and obesity.
Dr. Farley is coauthor with RAND Corporation Senior Scientist Deborah Cohen of Prescription for a Healthy Nation, published in 2005 by Beacon Press, which explains how changes in the physical and social environment can improve health and counter the leading causes of premature death.
In taking up the Tisch fellowship, Dr. Farley joins a distinguished roster of previous fellows, including, Dr. Richard Jackson, Professor and Chair of Environmental Health Sciences at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles; Professor Sue Atkinson, first Director of Public Health for London; Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association; and Harvard professor, Dr. John McDonough, who was the Senior Adviser to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
- Dr. Nicholas Freudenberg (The Guardian): "CVS stores will no longer sell cigarettes. It's the health over profit revolution"
The decision to cut tobacco shows that advocates and public opinion can swing the profit-loss calculus in favour of health.
(Wednesday 5 February 2014)
- Dr. Nicholas Freudenberg (The Guardian): "Top lessons from 50 years of fighting the tobacco industry"
“In 1964, defeating Big Tobacco seemed impossible. Today, firearms, alcohol and processed food pose similar challenges.”
(Tuesday 21 January 2014)