THE BLOG
12/30/2014 03:59 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2015

5-Year Journey: One Blog

In the U.S., we tend to believe our health is largely a result of our genes and our personal choices. But, as research shows, health is most influenced by our environment. You could say our ZIP code has more to do with our health than our genetic code. Though I will soon step down as commissioner of public health, it is this reality that first led me to this job -- if we can improve the health of a neighborhood, we can improve the health of our residents.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel understands this. When he first took office, he directed the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) to create a comprehensive public health agenda for the entire City. That plan, Healthy Chicago, provides 200 strategies to build healthier neighborhoods, which will in turn provide our residents -- especially our youth -- with more opportunities to get and stay healthy.

And it's working. Since launching Healthy Chicago, we have reported declines in childhood obesity rates and teen smoking rates while making real progress in our fight to close breast cancer disparities. There is more work to do, but we are moving in the right direction across the board.

We know that 90 percent of adult smokers started when they were minors. So Healthy Chicago includes a series of initiatives aimed at discouraging our children from ever lighting their first cigarette. We increased the city's cigarette tax because
research shows that increased cost is the single most effective way to prevent kids from picking up the habit
. We supported the regulation of e-cigarettes, ensuring these products are not physically accessible to youth and championed a new ordinance restricting the sale of flavored tobacco -- including menthol -- within 500 feet of schools

This effort is paying off. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data showing that less than 11 percent of Chicago high school students reported smoking in 2013 -- a historic low and five points below the current national average. The CDC also reported that Chicago's adult smoking rates have hit a new record low of less than 18 percent.

While it is critical that we reduce the number of tobacco users in Chicago, addressing this challenge alone will only get us so far. It is just as important to encourage all residents to adopt healthier lifestyles across the board.

Over the last three years, we have worked to reduce childhood obesity. We have expanded the number of bike lanes across the city and launched one of the nation's premier bike sharing programs. The CDPH also launched PlayStreets to provide nearly 27,000 Chicago children and their families more opportunities to get outside and play in their own neighborhoods.

We are also working to keep our children healthier when they are in school. We guaranteed recess for every student, strengthened nutritional standards in our cafeterias and expanded our free dental and vision programs. Last school year we provided an Action Plan for Healthy Adolescents, dental exams and cleanings for 113,000 students and distributed nearly 30,000 pairs of eyeglasses. By helping our children today, we are creating a healthier future for tomorrow.

One of the most important ways to protect the health of our children and every Chicago resident is by protecting the air we all breathe in every neighborhood of our city. Mayor Emanuel fought to shut down the two remaining coal power plants in the city and joined the CDPH to issue the most comprehensive set of regulations to cut down on the harmful emission of petroleum coke on the city's southeast side.

We also launched innovative programs like FoodBorne Chicago, using Twitter to identify and respond to potential cases of food poisoning. Partnering with the University of Chicago, we have developed a new way to identify and repair homes most likely to have children exposed to lead-based paint.

We also made changes that seemed controversial at the time but are starting to pay off today. This includes reforming the city's mental health and primary care programs. With mental health, we consolidated our clinics ensuring they had the staff and resources to serve uninsured residents. We also secured $14 million in funding to strengthen the overall mental health infrastructure, including $4 million for children's services on the South and West Sides. With primary care, we transitioned city clinics to non-profit partner organizations which have expanded services, improved the quality of care and increased patient visits by nearly 70 percent in the first year and a half -- all while saving taxpayers an additional $12 million.

That is why we were honored as the 2014 Health Department of the Year by the National Association of County and City Health Officials. And that is why the CDPH will continue to move the needle forward.

Serving as Chicago"s health commissioner has been a profound honor and the highlight of my career. I am proud to say I leave behind a department that is stronger than it was when I arrived and a city that is healthier. There is no greater job satisfaction than that.