America’s cultural zeitgeist and the emerging Don Corleone of public health

This has been one of the wildest weeks exposing the extremes of America’s cultural zeitgeist I can remember. What could be more American than gay marriage moving to the mainstream of American life and semi-automatic weapons readily available at a Walmart  near you, right?

Need a weapon of war to feel safe? Just drive to the nearest Walmart near you and select from their popular product lines.
Need a weapon of war to feel safe? Just drive to the nearest Walmart near you and select from their popular product lines.

On one hand, you have the U.S. Supreme Court hearing two landmarks cases, one on the legality of a voter approved ban on same sex marriage and another on the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which aligns hundreds of federal benefits to promote that only a man can legally marry a woman.

Meanwhile, a full-court press was taking place in Congress to advance legislation that would require criminal background checks on all gun purchases and that would close the so-called gun-show loophole, which allows for up to 40% of all firearms sales to evade any scrutiny at all. However, efforts to include Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s amendment to restrict the sale of semiautomatic, military style assault rifles —the kind used to slaughter 26 civilians at Newtown—were dashed when Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), on March 20, pulled it from the current gun legislation in the U.S. Senate. GOP members of Congress are already promising to filibuster the bill.

Will Ferrell, actor, comedian, and cultural clairvoyant, seemed to sum up the obvious best.
Will Ferrell, actor, comedian, and cultural clairvoyant, seemed to sum up the obvious best.

Will Ferrell’s now much repeated tweet seemed to put the pulse of the nation best: “I feel so blessed that the government protects my wife and me from the dangers of gay marriage so we can safely go buy some assault weapons.”

And, as we have so often seen in our country, sometimes tasteless, but also very popular, comedians can best summarize the seemingly craziness of political reality, where serious-minded commentators fall flat. Perhaps only through comedy can we see the absolutely surreality of our current reality.

Bloomberg takes on the NRA: no quarter asked, and none given

This week also saw the launch of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $12 million campaign in 10 states to promote federal gun legislation, through his national coalition of big city mayors called Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “I don’t think there’s ever been an issue where the public has spoken so clearly, where Congress hasn’t eventually understood and done the right thing,” said the multi-billionaire leader of a national political movement to restrict the proliferation of weapons that claim more than 31,000 lives annually.

Bloomberg’s newly created super PAC, Independence USA PAC, infused millions in the last federal election cycle, helping elect four of seven candidates who promoted legislation to reduce gun violence in the United States, a major public health threat that only now is getting the attention of public health  officials nationally after years of self-imposed silence.

Wayne LaPierre went head to head with Michael Bloomberg on the talk shows.
Wayne LaPierre went head to head with Michael Bloomberg on the talk shows.

Likely fearing the emergence of a national political movement, the National Rifle association (NRA) launched a counter-strike against Bloomberg’s media campaign. NRA head Wayne LaPierre sparred with Bloomberg on Meet the Press on March 24, framing Bloomberg as a plutocratic, public health-minded uber-nanny who threatened America’s freedoms, including the alleged right to own guns and the right to eat unhealthy food:

“And he can’t spend enough of his $27 billion to try to impose his will on the American public,” said LaPierre, the national face for the most powerful gun industry lobby.”They don’t want him in their restaurants, they don’t want him in their homes. They don’t want him telling them what food to eat; they sure don’t want him telling them what self-defense firearms to own. And he can’t buy America.”

Which multi-billionaire do you want to champion public health, Gates or Bloomberg?

Bloomberg’s efforts to limit the size of sugary drinks in New York City was recently struck down by the courts. But Bloomberg remains determined to preserve his emerging national status as the Don Corleone of public health.

From pushing upstream interventions to tackle obesity to funding multiple efforts to reframe the national dialogue on guns and America, Bloomberg appears to be everywhere at once these days. In many ways, the bolder, tougher, more confrontational face for public health and the national voice for legislative action on clear public health threats is the 71-year-old Boston native.

By force of will and deep pockets, Bloomberg is emerging as a rival brand for plutocratic public health warrior to reigning champion Bill Gates, whose Microsoft-based wealth helped fund the biggest non-governmental player in public health, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With $34 billion in assets it is the largest openly run private foundation on the planet.

Which Don Corleone do you want to promote public health, Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg?
Which Don Corleone do you want to promote public health, Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg?

Multi-billionaire Gates carefully has chosen non-confrontational public health initiatives that many limited-government and conservative minded leaders can champion, such as poverty reduction programs, education programs, and promoting technological efforts such as genetically modified crops.  Bloomberg’s approach is a much more in-your-face, New York style. He has proven very effective on the bully pulpit by staking out public positions and articulating views that few in the field of public health or even elected office have championed since the assault weapons ban was passed in 1994 as part of a major cops bill under the Clinton White House.

One thing is clear. Leadership, in the wake of repeated gun-fueled tragedies, like the Sandyhook Elementary School mass murders, is making a difference. And for a change, it appears that the NRA’s seeming unshakable momentum to promote the ever-expanding sales of firearms and legislation that allows for the deadly use of force has been called into check.

This also has rippled down to the public health departments, which are now showing greater resolve and passing measures calling firearms-related deaths a threat to public health and totally preventable. Maybe Bloomberg’s moxie is rubbing off. Such symbolic efforts by public health departments clearly are not a true fix, but they are a long-awaited and long-overdue baby step forward.

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The politicization of public health (and everything else too)

maherobama
Click on the photo to open a link to the video clip of Maher’s commentary.

Some might say TV host Bill Maher is so political that he cannot be trusted. I disagree.

On March 8, on his TV show, Maher delivered a very provocative commentary that everyone in the field of health promotion, public health, and public policy should watch. Maher rightly asked, “Since when in America did everything have to be so political?” It was a smart piece of punditry, because he correctly showed how efforts to promote public health, nutrition, and healthy eating had become as politicized as the debate over regulating the proliferation of firearms.

Showing pictures of First Lady Michelle Obama, a champion of a national nutrition and exercise campaign called Let’s Move, Maher opined, “If seeing this nice lady on TV saying she likes the movies, or nutrition, or exercise fills you with rage, get help.”

Maher further correctly noted, “Big portions, conservative; knowing where your food came from, liberal.” In short, Maher said what few in the public health profession are saying or have the courage to say—that a deep schism exists in the public space that taints and will continue to taint all efforts to tackle some of this country’s biggest health problems.

These include the obesity epidemic and the threat posed to our healthcare system and our national health by chronic disease.

Ever a political lightning rod who is ready to fan conservative flames, former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin used her speaking appearance  at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference on March 16, to lambaste New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to tackle obesity by limiting the size of sugary-sweetened beverages. Bloomberg’s New York City law to limit the serving size of such drinks to just 16 ounces was  overturned by a New York State Judge on March 11.

This perfectly framedAP file photo from March 16 shows Palin's eager embrace of red-meat politics that seeks to prevent small measures to address the proliferation of obesity in the United States.
This perfectly framed AP file photo from March 16 shows half-term former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s eager embrace of red-meat politics that seeks to prevent small measures to address the proliferation of obesity in the United States.

Completely ignoring the obesity crisis that is afflicting her own former state and the country, where two-thirds of all residents are obese or overweight, Palin slurped soda from a 7-11 Big Gulp. The theatrics, all perfectly inline with Palin’s anti-government theology, again proved Maher’s point about the politicization of even micro efforts by some local elected officials to address the public health threats facing the country. (Side note, Palin briefly was governor when I lived in Alaska, and I saw her at health promotion events like community runs–an action that she likely would brand as “liberal” today.)

Whenever I would engage Puget Sound area public health officials during my two years of study at the University of Washington School of Public Health (2010-’12), I always asked, how can you prevent the public perception that efforts to promote healthy activity and nutrition are not perceived by conservative voters and Republican elected officials as part of a liberal, activist agenda. I never got a good answer, mainly because I do not believe those officials had an answer. I did not draw any great wisdom from my faculty or UW SPH peers either.

Some wonkish types have tried to investigate this issue in “philosophical terms,” along traditional axes of egalitarianism/choice minded conservatism against regulation-minded “big government” liberalism. One 2005 article on responsibility in health care choices argued, “Holding individuals accountable for their choices in the context of health care is, however, controversial.” There may be some truth to this, but I discount the “core political values” explanation as a way of understanding the politicization of public health initiatives.

Perhaps the biggest fight  in the U.S. political system today is over tax policy and the future of major social/medical programs—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid—that provide the true underpinning to the public wellness of our country. This is, at its core, is vicious political battle that will shape the public health of the country unlike any action taken by any regulatory or health agency of the U.S. government.

Regulation to promote health has been at the heart of the public health enterprise ever since the field emerged as a profession in the United States in the late 1800s. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many of the most successful public health achievements of the 20th century  (food safety, motor vehicle safety, identifying tobacco as a health hazard, etc.) were “upstream” interventions that, by definition, were regulatory in nature and thus purely political.

However, public health, by being a public enterprise, is by definition a creature of the political process, and thus influenced through the power of the purse to curtail its authority and stymie its reach. Public health departments today, for instance, are managed by publicly accountable officials. A local public health department board of health, like King County’s, includes a broad range of elected officials and a few medical professionals.

The nation’s leading de facto public health official, the U.S. Surgeon General (Dr. Regina Benjamin), today remains a mostly toothless position that has little if no sway over the public policy debate concerning the nation’s public health, according to New York Times health blogger Mark Bittman. He writes, “… there is no official and identifiable spokesperson for the nation’s public health, and the obfuscation and confusion sown by Big Food, along with its outright lies and lobbying might, has created a situation in which no one in power will speak the truth: that our diet is making us sick, causing millions of premature deaths each year and driving health care costs through the roof.”

I personally believe that the position of Surgeon General remains that of a paper tiger because those who have power, members of Congress and the Executive Branch, do no wish to allow an advocate for public health to embarrass them with pesky things like facts and science that call for action.

Dr. C. Everett Koop, former U.S. Surgeon General and effective communicator and advocate for public health.
Dr. C. Everett Koop, former U.S. Surgeon General and effective communicator and advocate for public health.

The most effective Surgeon General in living memory who recently passed away in February, the late Dr. C. Everett Koop, proved unpredictable. Though a staunch conservative appointed by President Ronald Reagan, Dr. Koop staked out very controversial political positions on moral and medical grounds, in defiance of his boss, Reagan.

His notable actions still stand out today for their audacity to challenge powerful interests and their embrace of morality as a tactical advocacy tool:

  • Koop’s office produced the plainly worded, 36-page “Surgeon General’s Report on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” which clinically detailed HIV transmission, making clear it was not spread by casual contact and affirming that, “We are fighting a disease, not people.” Koop promoted sex education and condom use, enraging conservative critics.
  • Koop also took on the all-powerful tobacco industry and lawmakers who received its many contributions with his pronouncements that smoking killed and should be banned. He famously called purveyors of cigarettes the “merchants of death.” (When is the last time anyone has heard a medical leader embrace such powerful language for a public health cause?)

Though Koop reportedly claimed morality never “clouded his judgment,” he remained an effective advocate on the bully pulpit by literally shaming those in power. “My whole career had been dedicated to prolonging lives,” he said, “especially the lives of people who were weak and powerless, the disenfranchised who needed an advocate: newborns who needed surgery, handicapped children, unborn children . . .people with AIDS.”

I keep waiting for someone, anyone besides billionaire Mayor Bloomberg, to enter the political discourse on behalf of public health and use straight language that cuts through the hype. The problem is, they cannot teach you leadership when you enter the fields of public health or politics. It is something you either are capable of, or simply lack. Right now, it is lacking.