Public Health Time Machine

I graduated from Roslyn High School on Long Island, N.Y. (pronounced LonGGG-Ghi-Land, if you’re from there) in 1986. My hair was big, my jeans were tight, and my collar was up. I was pretty clueless.

If someone had asked me in 1986 if my chosen career would involve public health, I would have given them a funny look, put on my giant headphones, and turned up the volume on my Sony Walkman tape recorder to jam out to Huey Lewis and the News singing “Hip to Be Square.”

My high school yearbook photo from 1986. Nice hair helmet!

Fast-forward 25 years to this past Saturday night when the '80s came roaring back at my 25th high school reunion. I’ve kept in touch with only a few friends from back then, and I wondered what it would be like. Would I still be the nerdy, but semi-popular kid who never really felt like he fit in? Would the men be wearing loafers with white socks? Would the women be dressed in Madonna’s “Desperately Seeking Susan” chic?

As it turned out, of the 50 (in a class of almost 200) who showed up, people looked great, they had left the '80s behind, and seemed to be enjoying their lives. I had fun catching up, sharing some laughs, and reminiscing about old times with old friends.

But being the public health nerd that I am, I couldn’t help but think about some of the important ways that public health has impacted our lives since 1986. I was struck by three things:

First, it is impossible to have been a child of the 1980s and not have been impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic that was exploding in the world around us during our teen years. Today, I imagine that the biggest societal fear that kids grow up with is terrorism. Back then it was getting sick and dying from sex. By 1986, the World Health Organization reported 38,401 cases worldwide of HIV/AIDS. Today there are approximately 34 million people living with the disease.

Second, had our reunion been held in the same New York City bar 25 years ago, the place would have stunk like cigarette smoke, and its foul stench would have seeped into our clothes, our hair, and our nostrils. It was not until 2003 that New York City banned smoking in bars, and 2007 for Philadelphia. Thanks to anti-tobacco and public health efforts, restaurant, bar, workplace, and other enclosed space smoking bans are now commonplace across the country. These efforts have decreased the risk that bar and restaurant workers, exposed to second hand smoke, will develop smoking-related diseases. It has also helped to decrease the prevalence of tobacco use by further stigmatizing smoking and by generally making it harder to be a smoker.

Third, until the mid-1980s, we all grew up not needing to wear seat belts in cars. But in 1986, mandatory seat belt laws were becoming increasingly common across the country. By 1987, buckle-up laws had spread to 29 states, including the 10 most populous. New York State’s law was the first, passed in 1984. New Jersey followed suit in 1985, Pennsylvania in 1987, and Delaware not until 1992. Only the state of New Hampshire remains without a mandatory seat belt law. Pennsylvania’s law is considered a secondary seat belt law, meaning that motorists can be ticketed for not wearing a seat belt only after being pulled over for another violation. Secondary laws are generally considered less effective at promoting seat belt use. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, between 2005 and 2009, seat belts saved more than 72,000 lives.

Please share your thoughts on how public health has changed over the past 25 years by clicking the “Post a Comment” link below. One of our goals here at The Public’s Health is to create an online public health community. Whether you agree or disagree with us, have something to say about a particular blog, or want to reminisce about public health in the 1980s, it would be great to hear from you.

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