Bloomberg health commissioner: City wrong to repeal circumcision forms

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Tom Farley at City Hall in 2009. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Former city health commissioner Tom Farley thinks it was a mistake for the current board of health to repeal consent forms that had been required before metzitzah b’peh, the controversial circumcision ritual that requires a mohel to put his mouth on a baby’s wounded penis.

“I thought the consent forms were the right thing to do and the right balance and so I’m disappointed they rolled that back,” Farley told POLITICO New York. “There are some parents who are not themselves ultra-Orthodox who may hire a mohel who is and they may be completely unaware of this [practice]. Those parents deserve to be informed before they take that risk. Under the current schema I don’t think that’s guaranteed.”

Farley was health commissioner during Michael Bloomberg’s third term and mayor, and led the board of health when it implemented the consent forms in 2012 for the ritual, which is practiced by some Orthodox Jewish sects.

His comments come on the eve of the publication of his book, “Saving Gotham,” due out Tuesday, which chronicles his time at the health department and Bloomberg’s public health campaigns.

In the book, Farley argues for a strong, proactive health department, willing and able to take on private interests when they are at odds with public health.

It’s a theme that runs through the fights against salt, sugar and tobacco — the three main antagonists of the book — and helps explain his view on the consent forms.

Farley argues the health department’s success came from being proactive and removing, where it could, unhealthy items or habits from people’s lives.

“Saving lives in America today means fighting to protect people from the pervasive marketing of … unhealthy products,” Farley writes.

It’s not enough, Farley said, to provide access to care or to test for bacteria. Health departments, if they really want to get to the source of health problems, need to take on businesses, politicians and special interests that are pushing harmful products and lifestyles.

Farley approved of the board’s recent decision to require chain restaurants to put a warning image next to food items that contain more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium, which is more than the daily recommended limit.

“I think it’s a part of the process that can be extremely helpful,” Farley said. “Sodium levels are extremely high. Consumers may just see that and avoid those items, restaurants may be embarrassed. In general, graphic images are more powerful than text. I think having a graphic warning sign makes all the sense in the world.”

Bloomberg’s campaigns had varying levels of success. The mayor and his health team, headed first by Tom Frieden, were able to ban smoking in bars, increase taxes on tobacco and cut the city’s smoking rate by 35 percent. They also banned trans-fats and put calorie counts on menus.

There were also conspicuous failures, such as the attempt to tax soda, limit what people could purchase with food stamps and regulate portion size for sugar-sweetened beverages.

In 2014, the state Court of Appeals ruled that the board of health overstepped its authority with its so-called soda ban, a ruling that could have broad consequences, Farley fears.

“I’m concerned by the wording of the decision,” he said. “It sets a very bad precedent because the board of health has always protected New Yorkers, and if it has got less power, then New Yorkers are at risk.”

Still, Farley said, all the hype — most of it deriding the proposal and the mayor — may have reduced consumption as New Yorkers appear to be drinking fewer sugary drinks, especially sodas.

The power of media and messaging underlies Farley’s current work as CEO of The Public Goods Projects, a nonprofit that uses mass media to tackle social problems. Last month, he was in Tennessee, where he is trying to encourage people to drink water instead of sugar.

There are “extremely high rates of obesity and diabetes,” Farley said. “This is the land that invented Mountain Dew.”

Farley unveiled a 30-second spot that compared sugary drinks to cigarettes, because both increase the risk of heart disease and can lead to tooth decay.

“Our premise is health in this country is amongst the worst, if not the worst, in the developed countries in the world and we need to change that and mass media is a tool to get us there,” Farley said. “We need to use the power of the mass media to take on that nation’s biggest health problems, because our health is embarrassingly bad and we need to mobilize all our resources and messaging from television to YouTube and Twitter to posters on the subway and email.”