NYC health claims don't add up

Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks about heat related issues affecting New Yorkers at the Wakefield Senior Center on Aug. 15, 2005 in New York City.

Article Highlights

  • Much of the health progress in NYC has nothing to do with the prevailing nostrums of public-health policy

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  • Cardiovascular-disease mortality in NYC reportedly dropped by 28% from 2002 and 2009 — as opposed to 26% for America

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  • It isn’t clear that the official narrative of New York’s health progress actually conforms with the health story for New York

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"If you want to live longer and healthier than the average American, then come to New York City,” exulted Mayor Bloomberg over the holidays. In the latest official figures, life expectancy at birth for New Yorkers is higher than ever — over 80 years as of 2009, nearly three years above America as a whole. Plus, death rates from nearly every major cause dropped markedly on Mayor Mike’s watch.

The mayor and his staff insist these numbers prove that their health policies are paying off — including their aggressive anti-smoking and anti-obesity campaigns.

“By investing in health care and continuing to encourage more New Yorkers to take charge of their own health,” Bloomberg declared, “we’ve experienced dramatic improvements in life expectancy.

"Unfortunately for the health ideologists, but happily for the people of New York, much of the health progress in the city over the last decade has nothing to do with the prevailing nostrums of public-health policy." --Nicholas EberstadtThe health news for the city is good — very good, in fact. And it must be especially gratifying to Bloomberg, given his longstanding personal commitment to public health. (He has for example donated over $100 million of his fortune to the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, which is now named after him.

But it isn’t clear that the official narrative of New York’s health progress, which conforms closely to the “harm reduction” and “disparity reduction” ideology espoused today in leading public-health faculties, actually conforms with the health story for New York over the last decade.

From 2000 to 2009, reports the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, life expectancy at birth in New York rose by almost three years. But by that same measure, New York’s progress was much better — over five years — during the 1990s under previous mayors and before the Bloomberg “health offensive."

Bloomberg’s anti-smoking crusade, its acolytes claim, brings big health dividends, mainly through reduced heart and cancer mortality. One of his health officials insists: “Heart disease and high blood pressure improve within hours or days after someone stops smoking."

Hmm. Cardiovascular-disease mortality in New York City reportedly dropped by 28 percent from 2002 and 2009 — as opposed to 26 percent for America as a whole during the seven-year period from 2000 to 2007 (the latest numbers for the whole country). Is this a meaningful difference?

As for cancer, rates are down a bit in New York City, but the same is true for national rates. So where’s this vaunted health dividend from Mayor Mike’s policies?

Admittedly, for smoking cessation and other desiderata of health elites, the benefits may be “long run” — longer than can be tabulated in two or three mayoral terms. Fair enough — but if so, why all the hoopla about the seemingly exciting results for the last few years?

Unfortunately for the health ideologists, but happily for the people of New York, much of the health progress in the city over the last decade has nothing to do with the prevailing nostrums of public-health policy.

Despite the “victim” and “disparity” mentality of current health policy, for example, the inconvenient fact remains that death rates are much lower in New York City for the Latino population than for the city as a whole — even though Hispanic New Yorkers have much lower education levels and higher measured poverty rates! Indeed, according to the city’s latest (2007) data, the standardized death rate for Hispanics is 32 percent lower than for African-Americans — and 18 percent lower than for “whites.”

By the same token, infant-mortality rates are lower in New York City than for the country overall, despite the fact that the city has markedly higher poverty and illegitimacy rates than America as a whole. For whatever reason, this signal achievement is something that Bloomberg and his health posse seem to have overlooked. Can anyone say why?

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt chair in political economy at AEI.

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