Dr. Colin “Coke” McCord, who as a surgeon, public health administrator and advocate helped draw attention to health disparities in poor communities in Harlem and around the world, and successfully pushed to expand the city’s exception-only indoor smoking ban two decades ago. Died at age 94 at his home in Oxford, England, to include all bars and restaurants. His death, which occurred on March 11, was first reported by The New York Times on Friday.
McCord, in a career spanning decades and continents, is widely credited for making significant contributions to public and international health, including in Bangladesh, Mozambique and Tanzania, where he helped expand new technologies, training and services to underserved populations. But he touched millions of lives in New York City while serving as assistant health commissioner in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. He helped champion the city’s smoke-free air law, enacted in 2003, which banned smoking in bars, restaurants and most workplaces.
These restrictions and other anti-smoking measures, including higher cigarette taxes, were credited by the city a decade later, preventing 10,000 premature deaths. The impact has undoubtedly exceeded that estimate, as countless municipalities across the country and the world have replicated city smoking restrictions, at a time when only a few municipalities and states took the risk of enacting such sweeping bans, fearing it would hurt businesses.
City Health Commissioner from 2002-09. Thomas Frieden told Gothamist that McCord’s legacy is far-reaching. He first worked with McCord in 1990.
“During my time as health commissioner in New York City,” Frieden said, “he was someone who read a nutrition textbook and said, ‘You know, artificial trans fat is really bad stuff. We should do something about it.’ And that led to New York City taking action (banning artificial trans fats from the food supply under Bloomberg). And now the world is on its way to eliminating artificial trans fats from the entire global food supply, a measure that could literally save over 15 million lives. “
McCord was the first director of a community-wide program in the South Bronx to reduce teenage and unintended pregnancies. He also collaborated with fellow surgeon, oncologist and leading public health advocate Dr. Harold P. Freeman on a widely discussed The New England Journal of Medicine paper, “Excess Mortality in Harlem.” It shows that the life expectancy of black men in Harlem lags behind that of men in even poorer Bangladesh. The work has served as justification for a number of measures to improve health outcomes and services in low-income communities.
“There are hundreds of New Yorkers who are alive today in significant part because of the work of Dr. Coke McCord,” Frieden said. “And it’s not just about New York City. There are women and children all over Africa who are alive and well because of the surgical initiatives she implemented.”
McCord has received a long list of honors for his work abroad, spanning from rural India to Tanzania.
Dr. Oxiris Barbot, who served as the city’s commissioner of health and mental hygiene from 2018 to 2020 and was the first Latina woman to hold the position, said, “I always thought of her (McChord) as the elder statesman of the health department.”
He added: “He would urge us to keep up with literature and work to reduce inequality.”
A memorial will be held in New York City in May, according to a notice on Legacy.com.