Reflecting on his 20-year tenure, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said on Wednesday that taking political risks is one of the principles that has guided his leadership on public health initiatives. One such risk was a controversial citywide clean needle exchange and education program aimed at reducing HIV/ AIDS transmission. Another was a smoking ban in workplaces, including restaurants and bars—an announcement he made on Valentine’s Day in 1998.
“I said it was a gift to everyone’s heart,” Menino recalled, acknowledging that the measure faced resistance early on. “But at the end of the day,” he said, “the smoking ban was about protecting people from second-hand smoke. I think most people came to understand that.”
“When it comes to controversial issues, you can’t be afraid to take a stand,” he added.
Menino served as the keynote speaker at Northeastern’s Open Classroom Series, a graduate-level seminar run by the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and held each semester that is free and open to both the campus community and public. This semester’s series, titled “Policy for a Healthy America,” is taught by associate professor Timothy Hoff, who has joint appointments in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the D’Amore-McKim School of Business; John Auerbach, Distinguished Professor of the Practice and director of the Institute on Urban Health Research in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences; and Wendy Parmet, Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law. The Open Classroom is held Wednesday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m. in West Village F and runs through Dec. 4.
Judyann Bigby, the state’s former Secretary of Health and Human Services who also served as the mayor’s personal physician, lauded Menino for his public health legacy.
This semester’s series dovetails with Northeastern’s commitment to pursuing both use-inspired research that addresses global challenges in health as well as its own health initiatives, including last month’s implementation of a smoke-free campus policy.
The event featured a panel of distinguished health leaders: JudyAnn Bigby, the state’s former Health and Human Services Secretary and director of community health programs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Azzie Young, president and CEO of the Mattapan Community Health Center; and Matthew Fishman, vice president for community health at Partners HealthCare.
Menino will conclude his tenure in January. On Wednesday, speakers praised his public health leadership, which was also highlighted in a video tribute to his career. His accomplishments include merging two hospitals to create Boston Medical Center and the Boston Public Health Commission; expanding and improving access to community health centers; and launching an ambitious initiative to study and eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities.
Bigby, who was Menino’s personal physician, commended the mayor for using his battle with a rare but treatable form of skin cancer as the impetus to launch a public awareness campaign urging residents and workers to get regular cancer screenings.
Auerbach, who previously led the Boston Public Health Commission, added, “At the heart of his work has been his concern for the health and well-being of the city’s residents.”
More than 150 people attended the Open Classroom on Wednesday night.
All these measures, Menino stressed, have been achieved through key partnerships and collaborations. He also noted that one of the toughest public health battles he’s faced in office was banning soda and other sugary drinks from public schools.
“It’s not about doing what’s going to help you as a politician; it’s about doing what’s going to help improve the lives of your constituents,” he said.
– By Greg St. Martin