Boise City Councilman TJ Thomson knows he’ll be criticized if his new set of public health measures comes to a public hearing.
When people catch wind of his proposal, they’ll compare him to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose unpopular ban on giant sodas was tossed by the state’s Supreme Court. Thomson wants to curb Boise students’ access to fast food and exposure to advertising, increase options for healthy food on city property and at city events, help people with low incomes buy fresh produce, and push real estate developers to build in a way that encourages more walking and biking.
Thomson accepts the controversy he’s sure to face. He said all of his objectives fit government’s foremost role: protecting its residents. He sees obesity and restaurants that sell unhealthy food as a threat to public safety, especially children’s.
“We need to come together and address these problems because we can’t expect these businesses to just do the right thing,” Thomson said. “It will take a shift in the way we think, and there will be some growing pains. And I realize I may take the brunt of some of those blows, but I think that my record will show that I’m a clear supporter of individual liberty.”
Thomson pointed out that in 2011, he was the only council member who voted against banning smoking in parks. He said he opposed that measure because he hadn’t seen any evidence that secondhand smoke is a problem in wide-open spaces.
There’s a mountain of evidence that obesity and poor nutrition are factors in poor health.
Thomson’s last major initiatives enjoyed smooth sailing on their way to becoming law last year.
They set new standards for worker-child ratios, healthy activities and meals at child-care centers in Boise. A few people complained, saying the standards would harm small businesses, but the industry mostly backed Thomson’s proposal.
Now, Thomson is taking on a bigger challenge by expanding obesity-reducing efforts to K-12 schools.
He said he developed the new proposal after attending public health summits in Atlanta and Boston, and after surveying cities around the country that have passed a variety of laws aimed at improving public health. He then picked several he thought would have the biggest impact on Boise and tailored them to the city’s population and culture
“ I could have proposed 50 initiatives,” he said. “There’s that many.”
Fellow council members were receptive when Thomson presented his ideas at a Thursday meeting, but they worried about some details, such as how to define fast food in an effective law and whether some of the initiatives would backfire. Thompson’s proposal is in its infancy. If it advances as far as a City Council hearing and vote, it likely will have changed significantly.
Representatives of a variety of fast-food, coffee and billboard businesses around Boise were unavailable or declined comment for this story. Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bill Connors said he didn’t want to comment until he had a chance to read Thomson’s proposal and discuss it with members.
“Generally, the chamber has been supportive of healthy communities initiatives,” Connors said.
The Boise School District is aware of Thomson’s proposal but hasn’t formed an official position, spokesman Dan Holler said. District administrators will meet next week to discuss it, Holler said.
OUT OF THE FOXHOLE
Rebecca Lemmons, a public health policy analyst for Idaho’s Central District Health Department, said increasing nutritious options at city venues and city-sponsored events is the most proven concept in Thomson’s proposal. Drawing a 1,000-foot circle around a high school and banning new fast-food restaurants from opening inside the circle is new. Detroit banned fast-food restaurants within 500 feet of all schools and Arden Hills, Minn., banned them within 400 feet of schools. Seattle and Phoenix banned street food vendors near schools.
Thomson said menus at Boise’s high schools have “come a long way.”
“If we don’t do something directly outside the walls of these high schools, then we’re undermining the very work that’s going on inside,” he said.
A 2009 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that children who attended schools within a half-mile of fast-food restaurants ate fewer servings of fruits and vegetables, drank more soda and were more likely to be overweight.
“Boise’s in a unique position to be one of those standout communities that’s trying some new things to see how effective it’s going to be in improving the health of kids and families, too,” Lemmons said.
That’s a double-edged sword, of course. It’s cool to be on the cutting edge, but less trial and error in the past means less certainty of success in the future. Thomson’s fine with that.
“I’m not chasing fluff. We do a great job of education and promoting eating right and that sort of thing, and I’m going to stake my future on it,” he said. “I’m looking for policy solutions that can have an impact but also don’t infringe on independent choice.”