Q&A with Mary Bassett on Health and Hospitals

Q&A with Mary Bassett on Health and Hospitals

Q&A with Mary Bassett on Health and Hospitals
February 11, 2015

Q: A recent city investigation found 13 hookah bars were violating the Smoke-Free Air Act by selling shisha with tobacco in it. How does the city enforce this?
MB: From our sting operation, in this case, we have requested revocation of their permits. I’m not quite sure where it is in the process. It’s a long process, however, it is going forward. This is the first time that we’ve actually sent the product to a laboratory for analysis. And the laboratory analyses showed that they were consistent with having the presence of tobacco in what was being served. In addition to there being tobacco, which is illegal in all restaurant and bars, all of the individuals were under aged. You have to be 21 to purchase tobacco products. One thing that I want to add about hookah: it is a tradition with roots in the Middle East and so this has nothing to do with going after a cultural tradition. It’s purely about tobacco use because tobacco use is unhealthy no matter where you come from.

Q: A City Council bill would ban the sale of hookah and hookah products at businesses that receive more than half of their revenue from other products, such as food and alcohol. What’s your position?
MB: We’re looking at it. I personally haven’t seen it yet.

Q: The Bloomberg administration was known for sometime graphic advertisements highlighting public health campaigns. Is this a strategy you plan to continue?
MB: This strategy of highlighting to the public that tobacco will not only kill you, it will maim you and make your life miserable first has been extremely successful—successful in this city, successful all over the world. New York City’s ads have been used in Australia and in other countries as well as other states across the country. This is a public health strategy that works. What has changed in New York City is the types of cigarette smokers that we have. We now have 70 percent of people who report in our surveys that they smoke, smoke 10 or fewer cigarettes a day or don’t smoke every day. And people who don’t smoke every day may not even really consider themselves smokers. So part of what we’re grappling with—and we had one campaign aimed at this last year— is how to reach out to these smokers who are now a majority of smokers. A targeting campaign may not be all that we need. We need to think about this widening proportion of smokers who smoke 10 or fewer cigarettes a day or don’t even smoke every day and what kind of messaging would reach them.

Q: What did you learn from treating a patient with Ebola?
MB: This department is known for its technical excellence and I consider it the premiere urban health department in the United States and probably in the world. So our technical management of Ebola was something that I had every confidence that we could pursue. Long before the first patient, Mr. Thomas Duncan, arrived in Dallas Hospital, we began the conversation with partners and providers and began issuing guidance on how to alert us to the possible presence of a patient. We worked on our lab protocols. What was sort of special about this response was our communication strategy, in that our adoption of a policy of transparency, of sharing what we knew with the public. Our outreach strategy was very important, going to the neighborhoods where people had been quarantined, making sure that we made information available to people. We had an informational card aimed to speak to lay people and we handed out thousands of these postcards. Additionally we reached out to the West African community of this city, a community where relatives and friends were suffering and even dying back home, and made sure that we got information to them and that we made it clear that the Heath Department was here to help and support. Those were additional things that we were able to do that were certainly major in our response to Ebola—one that the public appreciated and one that helped with the early identification and full recovery of Dr. Craig Spencer.

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