Toronto Public Health’s chief medical officer talks about crack, calories and conditional passes

Toronto Public Health’s chief medical officer Dr. David McKeown talks about crack, calories & conditional passes


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Dr. McKeown was pleased to tell us that smoking rates in T.O. are down to 16 per cent

Last winter, the Fords pushed Toronto’s head public medical officer, Dr. David McKeown, into the limelight. Robbie was furious because a) the top doc wanted to lower Toronto’s speed limits and b) McKeown’s $300K salary enraged the fiscal conservative. When we caught up with our metropolis’ top doc to gab about the projects he’s launched and planning to launch, it was obvious he is a busy, busy man, nearly every minute of his day allotted to crusading for Toronto’s health.

Do you think that the recent proposal to ban smoking in public parks will make a big difference in helping folks butt out for good?
It was my proposal, so I support it, obviously. Restrictions on smoking in public places play an important role in addressing the health harms caused by tobacco, together with education and cessation. We’ve seen smoking rates fall for a number of years. We’re now down around 16 per cent.

Could you tell us about Toronto Public Health’s Savvy Diner campaign?
We’ve been working for some time to develop a labelling initiative here in Toronto that would give people information they want about what is in the food they buy, particularly calories and sodium. Research has shown people are really not very good at estimating what is in the food that they buy. Happily, the provincial government has announced its intent for legislating menu labelling in Ontario.

But that’s only for restaurants with 10 franchises or more or restaurants that earn $10M or more annually, correct?
We’re actually working on a pilot project in Toronto. We’re working with smaller, independent restaurants to assist them with the same thing. We have nutritionists working with about a dozen restaurants. They are using software to estimate the amount of sodium and calories in a meal. Smaller restaurants do not have the resources, and they don’t necessarily have standard recipes, so they face some different challenges.

Would you eat at a restaurant that had a conditional pass?
No. I pay close attention to the work that our inspectors do. I think that a conditional pass means that the restaurant has unresolved issues on food safety.

Are you getting the flu shot this year?
I already had mine! I get mine every year!

Now that time has passed, would you care to comment on Mayor Ford’s reaction to your proposition to lower speed limits? And, is it true that Mayor Ford tried to get you fired for this?
[Laughs] Well, since that time, the Ontario coroner did a review and made the same recommendation. We’ve seen cities around the world adopting similar policies. Many cities have found that reducing speed creates safer streets. We’re also working on four pilot projects to look at how we can make neighbourhoods safer and more welcoming for active transportation — so, for people to get out of their cars and walk, cycle, skateboard and so forth. It may involve a number of different measures: it may involve traffic calming, it may involve changes in speed limits, it may involve education, changes in traffic arrangements. We’re trying to find a customized solution that works for those neighbourhoods, and we’ll learn from those projects what we can do city-wide.

And finally, I, Jon Stewart and, well, all inquiring minds want to know: how much crack is too much crack?
Ha! Crack use is a serious problem in Toronto, generally. We have programs that work with schools around drug education. We are just about to do a major health survey of students from grades 7 to 12, and we’ll be gathering information on a number of topics, including drug use. Another program, which was initially controversial, but I think now is operating very well, is providing safer crack use supplies and encourages users to seek out help and better contact with health addiction services. We use the Safer Crack Use Kit as an outreach tool. Crack users are sometimes a difficult group to reach out to. They may not be in contact with health professionals that can help them. The Safer Crack Use Kit is one way of bringing people in  contact with services that can be helpful.

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