The City of Toronto now has an official opinion on whether or not an anti-vaccine American actress should be permitted to host an American talk show. Or, at least, the city’s health department does. That is not quite the same thing. Toronto Public Health has opinions on lots: speed limits (should be lowered), supervised drug injection sites (should be approved), restaurant menus (should include calorie counts), Halloween etiquette (“hand out stickers instead of sugary candy”). The rest of the government only sometimes agrees with its top doctor’s prescriptions.
Mayor Rob Ford has hired outspoken people to run the TTC and the planning department. Neither of them has anything on medical officer of health David McKeown. Undeterred by Ford’s quest to cut the tentacles of the local government, McKeown, a doctor, has pursued an aggressive brand of interventionist activism that is otherwise nearly nonexistent in the Ford-era municipal bureaucracy.
On Monday, a slow local news day, the department launched a campaign on Twitter to get model and actress Jenny McCarthy fired from her new perch on the ABC gabfest The View. McCarthy claims that vaccines cause autism, a suggestion unsupported by scientific evidence.
“Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine views = misinformation. Please ask The View to change their mind,” the department wrote on Twitter. “Jenny McCarthy cites fraudulent research on vaccines & it's irresponsible to provide her with The View platform.”
If this was a stunt, it was a successful stunt. Four hours after the first Twitter post, cameramen assembled in the department’s headquarters on Victoria St. to broadcast assistant medical officer Barbara Yaffe’s comments on the importance of vaccination.
The department was also quickly denounced by a council conservative. “They clearly have too much time on their hands,” said Denzil Minnan-Wong. Toronto Public Health, he said, should focus on “health issues in the city of Toronto that need serious action and consideration rather than starting campaigns against American television programs.”
McKeown declined comment. Yaffe said the department’s wide-ranging recent proposals all fall within its provincial mandate to “advocate for what will improve the health of the population.”
“Some of those things have to do with very basic medical care, like immunization, which is what we’re talking about today. Some of them have to do with a healthy environment; there are lots of things that impact everyone’s health. Our job is to do what we can to ensure the public is aware and that policies are health-promoting rather than health-impeding.”
Ford himself has repeatedly criticized McKeown’s ideas. But unlike almost every other official, McKeown, appointed in 2004, has little reason to fear the mayor: under provincial law, he reports only to the board of health, which is currently led by Ford opponents, and only council can dismiss him. McKeown speaks in measured tones, and he does not seek the limelight. His department has promoted his proposals with notable abandon.
In April, McKeown issued a report asking the province or city to require chain restaurants to list calorie and sodium information on their menus. Ford, again, was opposed. But the department soon launched a slick advertising campaign touting the idea — complete with subway posters, a YouTube video, and a dedicated website, savvydiner.ca.
“He’s not a politician. He doesn’t try to be a politician. He just gives his medical evidence,” said Councillor John Filion, who was the longtime chair of the health board. “He does not limit himself in what he recommends by what he thinks will be either politically popular or popular with the general population. That’s not his job.”