Philadelphia appointed a new city health commissioner, a doctor best known for his controversial efforts to get New Yorkers to quit smoking and improve their diets. The Tulane-educated physician Thomas Farley was appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney today, after serving as head of the New York City Department of Health for five years.
While there, he grabbed national headlines for promoting unconventional initiatives to curb unhealthy behavior. Farley pushed for intentionally high soda and cigarette taxes, along with bans on public smoking and trans-fats. At one point, he explored shutting down NYC’s gay bathhouses to curb sexually transmitted infections, but scrapped that plan.
Some hailed Farley as a medical crusader, while others branded him as a despotic health nut. Farley says he takes controversy in stride, and believes time is vindicating his strategies.
“There’s controversy, especially in New York, on everything. Particularly, there was controversy on smoking, there was controversy about banning transfat in food,” he said. “But now everybody thinks we shouldn’t really be having transfat in our food, because it’s a toxic chemical.”
He also added that smoking rates in New York had dropped by nearly one third during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s three terms as mayor.
Saying it was too early to get into specifics about his plans for Philadelphia, Farley outlined his health philosophy in general.
“In the nation as a whole, what’s killing most people are chronic disease like heart disease and cancer and diabetes. And those problems are driven by things like smoking and unhealthy diet, and physical inactivity and alcohol and drug abuse,” he said. “So those are all things we’re going to be working on.”
Farley is something of a surprising choice for Kenney. While the mayor was serving on City Council in 2012, he helped kill off legislation that would have hiked taxes on soda and other sugary drinks. It was the second attempt by former Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration to institute such a tax, and was inspired by Bloomberg’s efforts in New York.
“I was not for the soda tax the first time, I won’t be for it a second time,” Kenney said, at the time.
Kenney spokesman Mike Dunn said the appointment did not necessarily mean Kenney’s stance had changed.
“The Mayor appointed Dr. Farley because he has a wide range of impressive public health accomplishments,” he said. “His appointment indicates no more or less than the Mayor thought Dr. Farley would do a good job leading the City’s Health Department.”