Kenney Appoints NYC Soda Fighter to Lead Health Department

Under Mayor Bloomberg, Thomas Farley battled sugary drinks. Now he's coming to Philly.

New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, left, speaks while New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg looks on during a news conference in March 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The man who led Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s war on sugar, salt and fat in New York City is coming to Philadelphia. Mayor Jim Kenney named him to lead the Department of Public Health on Monday morning.

Thomas A. Farley is known by critics for a brand of “dietary paternalism” that gets the government involved in the food and drink choices of its citizens — but is praised by admirers for helping New York dramatically increase the life expectancy of its residents.

Remember when New York tried to limit the size of sugary soda drinks that could be purchased? That was Farley’s brainchild.

“Dr. Farley’s ‘out-of-the-box approach’ to public health, along with his medical expertise and his experience running one of the largest health departments in the nation will make him a valuable asset to Philadelphia,” Kenney said in a statement announcing Farley’s appointment. 

Farley has long rejected suggestions he uses government too aggressively while interfering with people’s eating and drinking choices.

“We’re creating a healthier environment that gives people the freedom to just go about their business without having to worry so much about being vigilant about their health behavior,” Farley said in a 2012 Huffington Post profile. 

“He really said that?” responded Andrew Moesel, spokesman for the New York City chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association. “There have been many times when this administration thinks they know what’s best for citizens and that just rubs people the wrong way.”

Farley, though, further explained his approach to public health in a 2013 interview.

“There has always been a lot of focus on how to deal with an individual person to try to help him change his behavior within a given environment. But at the population level it’s difficult to do that, and it’s certainly not cost-effective to do that,” he said “The way that we change the behavior of entire populations, which is the way I think we improve the health of entire populations, is to make healthy choices easier and sometimes to make unhealthy choices a little more difficult.”

For Kenney, who has sometimes seemed to make a virtue from departing from the approaches of former Mayor Michael Nutter, Farley’s appointment signals at least one avenue of continuity. Like Bloomberg, Nutter was an aggressive anti-obesity warrior — most notably losing a battle to raise taxes on sugary drinks. (The New York Times, however later suggested Nutter had won the war.)

Farley suggested Monday he’s ready to continue his previous approach in Philadelphia.

“The job of the city’s Health Commissioner is to help make Philadelphia a healthy place in which to live, work and play,” he said in a written statement. “The Philadelphia Department of Public Health already has a strong group of professionals who have made real progress toward that goal. I’m excited to help the city take the next steps to becoming one of the healthiest cities in the nation.”