Friday, November 30, 2012

Transforming Baltimore

 Nothing is more transformative to a City than engaged, informed citizens.

Last night, I had the pleasure of witnessing the potential for change in our city as I testified at the Planning Commission’s first public hearing as part of TransForm Baltimore.  It’s our City’s effort to update and modernize our zoning code in a way that encourages growth and new development while protecting the assets and features that make Baltimore unique. 

You may wonder why a Health Commissioner is so concerned about zoning. 

Zoning codes are one of the most effective tools for promoting and protecting the public’s health.  The World Health Organization, the US Surgeon General and the Center for Disease Control have all recommended use of zoning codes as a method of reducing harm in communities.  This is especially important for things such as high alcohol outlet density.

Several good public health research studies recently conducted in urban centers throughout the country have demonstrated that alcohol outlets that sell for off-premise consumption (so-called “packaged goods stores) are strongly and consistently associated with increased violent crime.  Additionally, through our own Neighborhood Health Profiles, we know that Baltimore neighborhoods with higher alcohol outlet density are generally associated with poorer health outcomes, including shorter life expectancy, higher homicide rates, and greater poverty.  Lastly, through our Neighborhood Health Initiative, we heard loud and clear from communities throughout the city that this is a major public health concern; in fact residents in over half of the council districts prioritized liquor outlet density as one of their top ten health concerns.

Violence as a public health issue is something that I feel passionate about.  Addressing this pressing health concern must include every tool that is available to us.  That’s why I am particularly in favor of the amendments which I believe will right size the distribution of alcohol outlets:

Phasing out nonconforming Class A Liquor Outlets. These stores have been “non-conforming” in residential neighborhoods for 40 years. More often than not, these are the stores where you can buy cheap liquor across a plexiglass barrier.

Clarifying the definition of BD-7 licenses, commonly known as taverns. Often, BD-7s function as modern-day “speakeasies” – you can buy liquor in the front for off-site consumption, but to get into the actual bar you have to be buzzed in. In the new code, at least 50% of the outlet’s sales and floor area must be dedicated to on-site consumption. 

Enforcing a 300-foot limitation on new liquor stores. In the proposed zoning code, new liquor stores will not be permitted within 300 feet of existing stores with the exception of downtown.  

One of the priorities within Healthy Baltimore 2015 is “Creating Health Promoting Neighborhoods.” Current liquor board regulations say that Baltimore City should have one liquor license for every 1,000 residents. Instead, Baltimore currently has more than twice what it should, based on its population.

As I said in my testimony, in order to get a comparable ratio for health promoting outlets, we would need 30 times as many grocery stores and 4 times as many parks or open spaces as we currently have.  It shouldn't be easier to walk to your nearest package goods store than it is to walk to your nearest supermarket or park.

Last night, we heard residents speak about the shorter life expectancy, higher homicide rates, and greater poverty that they’ve seen in neighborhoods with too many liquor stores and ask for an opportunity to be part of the process that attempts to right-size the number of liquor licenses in our City.

You can stay informed during this process by visiting the Planning Commission's Zoning Rewrite website at

You can also attend one of the upcoming Planning Commission hearings on Transform Baltimore:

December 13, 2012, 6pm, BCCC-Liberty Campus
January 5, 2013, 11am, Poly/Western High School
January 24, 2013, 5pm, Southeast Regional Library
February 21, 2013, 6pm, Morgan State University

Finally, we hope you'll share photos or short testimonials that show how alcohol outlets affect your neighborhood.  We are particularly interested in hearing youth opinions.  You can send your photos and stories to or to the Health Department at 1001 E Fayette Street, Baltimore MD, 21202, attn. Elizabeth Tung.

Take Care, B’More

Friday, June 8, 2012

It’s a noteworthy fact that teen births in Baltimore City have dropped by 30% over the last three years. And while that’s certainly great news and something to get excited about, we can, and we must, do better.

Baltimore still has one of the highest teen birth rates of any major city in the United States. Approximately 1 in 6 births in Baltimore occurs to teen mothers—less than 20% of which are planned.

We can, and we must, do better.

Teen pregnancy, like many of our city’s pressing health challenges, is complicated by factors involving where we live, work, learn and play – the social determinants of health. Teen pregnancy rates remain highest in communities and neighborhoods with higher rates of poverty, unemployment and crime. And we know that historically, teen pregnancy disproportionally impacts minority communities, particularly African American and Latinos.

This is important because teen moms are less likely to graduate high school, and education is strongly associated with financial stability and security. So improving the health of our neighborhoods will be is critical to our success in reducing teen births.

We must sustain our recent gains if we are to meet our Healthy Baltimore 2015 goal of reducing the teen birth rate by 20%. That’s why this morning I had the privilege of joining Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in announcing a new campaign to prevent teen and unintended births.

Know What U Want removes several barriers teens face with getting accurate information about abstinence and birth control as options to avoid pregnancy. With this campaign, we are encouraging teens to consider the importance of family planning when making important life choices. The Mayor noted, “Know What U Want will help teens accomplish their personal goals and improve our birth outcomes by keeping our teens in school and on paths to being highly productive city residents.”
Know What U Want is founded upon the belief that teens and young adults are best equipped to make decisions when they have access to health information that is real, relevant, and resourceful.

We extremely thankful for the financial support we received from The Abell Foundation, The Straus Foundation, The David and Barbara B. Hirschhorn Foundation, and the Henry and Ruth Blaustine Rosenberg Foundation.

It’s our hope that will become a one-stop-shop where Baltimore teens and young adults can anonymously learn about abstinence, family planning, and available clinical services from a trustworthy source.

The Website also lists upcoming events. The fun starts in earnest next Saturday when city teens will spread “Know What You Want” through messages on Facebook, YouTube, and “tagging” public sidewalks with our U choose logo.

The chalk spray eventually will wash away with the rain. But we hope the message it imparts will last a lifetime. And that message is: Know what you want, and choose what’s right for you.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

What exactly is a chicken nugget? The necessity of educating kids about healthy alternatives to fast food

Today I had the privilege of participating in a healthy food cook-off sponsored by the Health Department, Stratford University and Urbanite Magazine. I was also joined by Mark Furst, President of United Way of Central Maryland, who is and a strong supporter of healthier food access, as well as food judges from our military.

Students from Dunbar High School had the opportunity to learn how chicken nuggets sold in fast food restaurants are made. Then Chef Todd Mohr led them in a hands-on experience to make healthier alternatives with chicken breasts. It’s a big misconception that eating healthy costs more and it takes more time to prepare healthy dishes. These young teens got to see that healthier alternatives are not difficult to make. They also learned why it’s important to know about the ingredients used in fast food. Learning about healthy and tasty alternatives to greasy, fried foods is an important step to taking control of our individual health.

As I told the students, the obesity epidemic is ravaging this city. Here in Baltimore City, 37% of public high school students are overweight or at risk of becoming obese. Overweight children are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other chronic health problems, as well as heart attacks, stroke, cancer and other acute diseases throughout life.

Combating childhood obesity, therefore, must continue to be a top priority for our local communities. We cannot fight this from City Hall, or the State House, or at a single hospital. It is going to take a collaborative public-private effort – like we experienced today –to truly make a difference for our children.

There are way too many people dying too young because of obesity related health conditions such as heart disease, which kills more people every year in Baltimore than the four top causes of cancer death combined.

I commend the Urbanite, Chef Mohr and Assistant Principal Mattie Burton of Dunbar High School for creating an opportunity that will teach these students culinary skills that will serve them well now and in the future.

What strategies do you use to teach your children about healthy eating?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Documentary "Rebounding From Loss" to air Saturday on WBAL; Baltimore basketball team's commitment to each other and reducing violence is an inspiring tale

Recently, I had the privilege of attending a private screening of a new documentary that will air on WBAL TV (Channel 11) this Saturday evening at 8:00 p.m. It was a privilege because I got to experience the film with the young men who were at the center of the documentary.

“Rebounding from Loss - A Season with a 6th Man” chronicles the basketball season of a team from Benjamin Franklin at Masonville Cove, a new high school in Curtis Bay. The players dedicated their season to a team member who died from an accidental shooting. WBAL's Deborah Weiner followed the team, chronicling their story.

If this was a movie review, the headline would read “You’ll Laugh, You’ll Cry - You’ll Leave Uplifted”. These are young men who are instantly likable and through the course of the documentary one gets to see them as the youngsters they are - playful and smart, yet very much aware that one wrong move could cost them their lives.

According to 2011 Neighborhood Health Profile data the Health Department released in December, the Curtis Bay/Brooklyn/Hawkins Point area is a part of Baltimore where the rates of poverty and single parent households are slightly above the citywide average and the rates of homicide and non-fatal shootings are 24% and 12% higher, respectively. What’s so uplifting about this documentary is that these kids and their community are not letting themselves be defined by the statistics.  

We often focus on risk factors for youth violence to the exclusion of protective factors. This documentary paints a vivid picture of the aspects of real life that keep kids and their communities safe. Some of the most important protective factors include:
  • Good adult role models – their coach, their principal and their fallen teammate’s mom are top among them.
  • Strong peer networks – it’s clear that these young men have goals and dreams (all the graduating seniors are going to college) and they are supporting each other as brothers would.
  • Strong connection to their school.
  • Involved in team sports – I can’t say enough about the discipline, focus and mutual accountability one learns from playing a team sport.
I highly recommend seeing this documentary with your friends, your kids and their friends and anyone else that can influence a youth’s life. It’s a perfect example of how we all play a role in reducing violence.

It's fortunate the release coincides with National Youth Violence Prevention Week. There are more than 70 events around Baltimore this week. Check out our Youth Violence Prevention Week webpage for a full listing of events and more information.

Take care B’More.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Show Your Heart Some Love This Month

Today starts American Heart Month.  It’s an annual ritual that reminds us to take stock of our heart health by knowing our numbers, blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose, as well as eating right and exercising.

National Wear Red Day is Friday, Feb. 3.

On my way to a meeting this morning I almost had a fender bender because of reading while driving. No, I wasn’t texting or looking at my GPS. I was horrified by the new billboard on I-83 North. Cute little Suzie Utz is pandering to our comfort food weaknesses when she says, “The way to this city’s heart is through its stomach.” I guess my outrage meter was already a little elevated because I had just seen a television commercial where Dunkin' Donuts is marketing heart-shaped donuts as a way to let our loved ones know how much we care about them.

There are physiologic effects to eating foods high in salt and sugar that include the release of certain “pleasure” hormones _ the same hormones the body releases during sex. The big food conglomerates are fully aware of this, and they bombard us with messages that mislead us into thinking that high fat and calorie foods are synonymous with love. Don’t be misled – this is not the same joy we derive from eating ‘comfort foods’ that remind us of our grandmothers.

If you really love someone, have the courage to take away the potato chips and donuts. Spend time outdoors together enjoying the health benefits that nature has to offer. Talk about supporting each other in living a healthier life.

I don’t believe the long-term picture is as bleak as some would paint it. But Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was correct earlier today when she said government alone cannot fix the obesity crisis. We all play a role, and it starts with modeling good heart health behaviors for our children.

So what steps will you take this month to improve your heart health? For information about upcoming screenings and quitting smoking, a good place to start is our Website, There you’ll also find a video of the Mayor’s remarks from City Hall today.

Take care, B’more.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Join Us For A Community Meeting, Discussion of Health In Your Neighborhood

As part of our Neighborhood Health initiative, this evening Baltimore City Health Department will hold its first ever community meeting presenting the 2011 Neighborhood Health Profiles. There will be 13 others, one in each council district, which will follow over the course of the next several weeks.

This event marks a distinct change in direction for the health department. It’s a direction that is more neighborhood-focused. They say all politics is local. The same can be said just as loudly for health. Since the release of Healthy Baltimore 2015 in May of 2011, we have been focusing more on the social determinants of health – things such as transportation, housing, employment and education that together influence community health outcomes to a greater degree than direct medical services. The Profiles paint a picture of health that includes the dimensions of our built environment for each of our neighborhoods. While that in and of itself is more than most large cities have done, it is not enough.

All too often public health data sits in the ethosphere with missed opportunities zipping by. These community meetings signify our intent to create a different way of engaging with communities. It’s the beginning of a process by which we more fully collaborate with communities to identify common areas where we can take action.

The health issues facing many parts of our city, at first glance, can appear overwhelming. A closer inspection, as offered by the Profiles, makes clear that a process of prioritizing and directing broad-based coordinated efforts to targeted areas will be a winning strategy for the city as a whole.

Don’t be a spectator – we all need to have some skin in the game if we’re to realize a Baltimore where all residents realize their full health potential.

Check out our schedule of events and take the first step.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Safe Streets Baltimore: New Study Shows Program Is An Effective Public Health Approach To Reducing Gun Violence

Over the past ten years, Baltimore has made significant progress reducing violence. Homicide is at its lowest level since 1978, and juvenile homicides and shootings are down nearly 70% from 2001.

The Health Department’s Safe Streets Baltimore initiative is an important component of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s strategy to reduce homicide and shooting rates. Launched in 2007, Safe Streets is an evidence-based, public health initiative that intervenes in crises, mediates disputes between individuals, and intercedes on group disputes to prevent violent events.

Safe Streets currently operates in Cherry Hill and McElderry Park, but today, I joined Mayor Rawlings-Blake in announcing the expansion of this vital program. Safe Streets Baltimore will be expanding to additional communities as a result of a $2.2 million dollar award from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.  The funding will also be used to expand the initiative to two additional communities that are disproportionately impacted by violence. Interested community groups can review the RFP at

Our expansion of Safe Streets is supported by the release of a new study today by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health demonstrating the program’s effectiveness. As noted in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s New Public Health blog, this study demonstrates clearly that a public health intervention can be a successful means for reducing youth violence. Violence is a learned behavior, and as a learned behavior, it can be prevented using the same methods we use to stop the spread of disease.

Some of the key findings of this study include:
         In all four neighborhoods (McElderry Park, Ellwood Park, Madison-Eastend, and Cherry Hill) the program was associated with a statistically significant decline in either homicides or nonfatal shootings, or both.
         Overall, researchers estimated the program prevented at least 5 homicide incidents and 35 nonfatal shooting incidents.
         In Cherry Hill, the program was associated with a 56 percent decline in homicides and a 34 percent decline in nonfatal shootings.
         The program was associated with a 34 percent drop in nonfatal shootings in Elwood Park.
         Researchers estimated that Safe Streets Baltimore was responsible for a 26 percent reduction in homicides in McElderry Park over the nearly three and a half years the program was in place. This site did not experience a homicide during the first 23 months of program implementation.

I would like to thank those who have invested in Safe Streets and urge local foundations and the business and faith communities to continue to step up and invest in this initiative – which has been proven to save lives.

We can be a safe city, but we must continue to support those programs which are contributing to our success. While the Health Department has been awarded funds for expansion of Safe Streets, additional funding is needed to sustain the existing two sites past this fiscal year.  The Health Department will use these positive evaluation results to seek additional funding for Cherry Hill and McElderry Park. I join the Mayor in urging local faith, non-profit, and businesses to lend their support to this vital initiative.

To view the full report on the effectiveness of our Safe Streets program, or for more information or to find out how to apply to become a Safe Streets site, please visit the Health Department’s Website,

Take Care, B’more!