Big Apple Doctor-in-Chief Seeks Community Approach


New York City’s new health boss doesn’t want to be your nanny. Think of her more as a tutor.

After years of pronouncements from on high, including the fight to limit big, sugary drinks, the health department is shifting priorities under its newest commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett: less telling and more listening to people about what they need.

“It means getting out, talking to people and realizing that the health department is only part of the solution,” said Bassett, explaining a philosophy she developed as a resident in a Harlem hospital and in 17 years combating disease in the African country of Zimbabwe.

Bassett’s approach is a break from her predecessors under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose sweeping health initiatives redefined the role of local government to influence healthier behaviors.

Bloomberg-era dictates, such as raising the cigarette-buying age to 21, a crackdown on artery-clogging fats and a proposed ban on large sugary drinks, led to lawsuits and criticisms the billionaire mayor was turning New York into a “nanny state.”

Bassett worked under Bloomberg, and she and current Mayor Bill de Blasio have been quick to say they supported Bloomberg’s boldest initiatives. But they agreed it was time for a change in tone and delivery — more bottom-up than top-down.

“People have this image of New York City that it’s a city of millionaires, and that’s true, but it’s also a city in which nearly half the population lives at or near poverty,” Bassett said. “That’s our challenge.”

She supported Bloomberg’s ban on sugary drinks, which the state’s highest court struck down. She is exploring ways to revive it.

As that fight simmers, Bassett is attacking obesity on other fronts. She is expanding school cooking programs, vouchers for families at farmer’s markets and a program that reconfigures bodegas to put healthier items in the prime shelf space.

“This isn’t just standing on the corners and telling people to eat more fruits and vegetables,” Bassett said. “But it’s also making it more likely that people will make those choices.”