Jeffrey HomSami JarrahThis is the first of a 2019 series of "Fresh Perspectives" blog posts presented by the de Beaumont Foundation. These posts leading up to the APHA Annual Meeting will feature perspectives from some of the inaugural "40 Under 40 in Public Health," announced by de Beaumont in May. Guest authors Sami Jarrah, MPH (right), and Jeffrey Hom, MD, MPH (left), are with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

Philadelphia is the nation’s sixth largest city. It is the home of Rocky Balboa, Gritty the NHL mascot, Boyz II Men, Grace Kelley, Questlove and the United States Constitution. We’ve got cheesesteaks and murals, bustling neighborhoods and a diverse population. Philadelphia is also the proud host of this year’s APHA Annual Meeting & Expo, which will be held Nov. 2-6.

In addition to being rich in history, museums and sports, Philadelphia is also a leader in public health. Our Board of Health is among the oldest in the country: its founding members included Benjamin Rush, an eminent physician and cosigner of the Declaration of Independence. Today the Philadelphia Department of Public Health strives to “protect and promote the health of all Philadelphians and to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable.”

In pursuit of this mission and like many APHA attendee organizations, our work is broad and diverse. Philadelphia’s health department focuses on a range of public health issues, many of which are common in urban areas yet exacerbated by deep and persistent disparities in wealth, income and access to care.

Some of Philadelphia’s health challenges include high rates of chronic health conditions like diabetes, obesity and asthma; tobacco use; gun violence; and drug overdoses. While these contribute to the morbidity and mortality experienced by many Philadelphians, they have also prompted new approaches, innovative policies and city-wide collaborations to address them:

  • Philadelphia was the first large U.S. city to pass a sugar-sweetened beverage tax in 2016. The tax has generated tens of millions of dollars, which Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney and Philadelphia City Council have wisely invested in refurbishing derelict parks and recreation centers, providing universal pre-K and funding community school programs.
  • Philadelphia suffers from an abundance of guns and the public health harm that results in the city’s poorest and most vulnerable communities. Earlier this year, Philadelphia officially recognized gun violence in the city as a public health problem, and Mayor Kenney committed that the city will address “violence through the lens of public health, one that relies on data and science to identify the most effective strategies.”
  • In 2016, Philadelphia’s Board of Health passed bold regulation aimed at reducing the disparities caused by tobacco use. In implementing a density cap and preventing new tobacco retailers from opening near schools, the board sought to reduce disparities. Since its implementation, Philadelphia has seen improvements in the distribution of tobacco outlets with more benefit accruing to the areas of Philadelphia that suffer most from an abundance of tobacco retailers.
  • Substance use continues to be a significant public health issue in Philadelphia, where more than 1,100 people died from drug overdoses in 2018. As the city implements the 18 recommendations from Mayor Kenney’s task force, several pioneering initiatives have been developed in the areas of prevention, treatment and overdose prevention, all aimed at reducing people’s exposure to addictive drugs and saving lives.
  • The Philadelphia Department of Public Health has been a leader in making accessible its health data for action by the community. From the award-winning Community Health Explorer to reports focused on access to primary care, the department makes available data to people and organizations that can take action. Recent reports in 2019 have focused on the health disparities faced by black men and boys and neighborhood-level data on public health indicators.

Public health departments cannot address complex health issues alone. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health benefits from a diverse network of partners across the city, from other city departments to academic health systems to social service organizations, all of whom work to ensure that efforts are coordinated, grounded in evidence and, importantly, accessible to all Philadelphians.

We hope you will join us at APHA in November to learn and to network but also to experience all that Philadelphia has to offer. We join you in working toward APHA’s vision of “creating the healthiest nation.” See you in Philly!

Sami Jarrah, MPH, is the chief operating officer of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, and Jeffrey Hom, MD, MPH, is a policy advisor at the department. Both were named to the de Beaumont Foundation's inaugural list of "40 Under 40 in Public Health" in May 2019.

The "Fresh Perspectives" blog series is presented by the de Beaumont Foundation, a private foundation that advances policy, builds partnerships, and strengthens public health to create communities where people can achieve their best possible health. For more information, visit