Skip to Main Content

For another public health trailblazer, a tobacco control milestone in the Bay State

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2004 - Spring


Howard K. Koh, M.D. ’77, M.P.H., is another Yale medical alumnus who has won a major battle in the tobacco wars as a top state health official. When asked to name the most memorable moment in his five-and-a-half-year stint as Massachusetts commissioner of public health, Koh barely hesitates. “I’ll never forget pulling down the last tobacco billboard in Massachusetts with the attorney general, Tom Reilly,” Koh says. “That was a very public, concrete example of how much progress we had made.”

Koh’s experience as a clinician (he’s board-certified in internal medicine, hematology, medical oncology and dermatology) inspired him to join Massachusetts’ fledgling anti-tobacco campaign in 1992 as a volunteer for the American Cancer Society and the Massachusetts Coalition for a Healthy Future. “I saw for myself what happens when prevention isn’t addressed or is overlooked, particularly with respect to cancer,” he says. During his watch as commissioner, he saw the state’s aggressive efforts pay off: Massachusetts reported the fastest decline in cigarette smoking in the nation—adult cigarette consumption dropped 4 percent per year while most states saw a 1 percent annual decline. “People said the industry was too strong and the addiction was too strong, and it was impossible to make a difference,” Koh says. “We showed that we could change the social norm and prevent addiction, especially for kids.”

For Koh, who left his post in January 2003 to become professor and associate dean for public health practice at the Harvard School of Public Health, the victories in the tobacco wars are part of a larger legacy. “Just before I stepped down, a national report ranked Massachusetts as the third healthiest state in the country,” Koh recalls. “We had risen from number 10. It was a tremendous honor to be commissioner and see that level of progress being made.”

However, the events of September 11, 2001, presented Koh and other state public health officials with an unexpected and daunting set of challenges; foremost among his goals at Harvard is to prepare students to grapple with bioterrorism and other 21st-century hazards. “The essence of public health is protecting people from threats and preventing suffering,” he says. “In the post-9/11 age, public health has been broadened dramatically in its scope, and we have a critical function.”

Accomplishment and a dedication to public service run in Koh’s family, along with strong ties to Yale. Koh’s brother, Harold H. Koh, J.D., a renowned expert on human rights, was recently named dean of the law school, where his sister, Jean Koh Peters, J.D., is a clinical professor. Koh’s mother, Hesung Chun Koh, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading East Asian scholars, retains an emeritus appointment at Yale. She and her late husband, Kwang Lim Koh, Ph.D., a lawyer and democracy activist, founded in 1952 what is now known as the East Rock Institute, the oldest Korean cultural institute in the United States. (Howard and Harold Koh and their parents have been named to the K100, a list of 100 leading Koreans and Korean-Americans in the first century of Korean immigration to the United States.) Koh says his parents were an inspiration to all of their children. “Both of them viewed life in a very broad, societal way, if not a global way,” he says. “When people ask where this commitment to serve came from, I tell them—it’s in my blood.”

For his Boston-area neighbors, though, one honor among the many listed on Koh’s CV surely arouses the greatest envy. After being named a “Medical All-Star” by the Boston Red Sox for his work on melanoma, Koh, with his wife and three children standing by, threw the first pitch in a game at Fenway Park last May. “That,” Koh says, “was a magical public health experience.”

Previous Article
Speaking the language of prevention
Next Article
Roaming the world’s hot spots, ensuring that care reaches those who need it