Jesse Lava

40 Under 40 Class of 2019

Chicago, Illinois

Director of Policy

Chicago Department of Public Health
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There is something to be said for earning one’s existence. While there’s a place for both personal ambition and idealistic aspiration, the former must always be in service of the latter. I want to know that more people are living long, healthy, fulfilling lives because I was born.

BOLD SOLUTION: Jesse led the creation of a vaping tax to deter youth addiction. Illinois law prevents Chicago from imposing a simple percentage on all vaping purchases. Instead, taxes must be imposed by the unit. Although some states tax by the volume of vape liquid, Jesse discovered this approach was a bad way to target youth, who tended to get hooked on products containing small volumes of liquid. So he proposed a container tax to supplement the volume tax. The container would be whatever held the liquid, whether a cartridge, single-use e-cigarette, or bottle. He and his team ran the numbers and found that a combined container-volume tax could be spread more evenly across age groups.

Five Questions for Jesse

1. Who or what inspired you to enter the field of public health?

My mother was an OB-GYN who prayed with me at my bedside every night. Her rule was I couldn’t just wish for another He-Man action figure; I had to pray for those who didn’t have enough to eat, a roof over their head, or a mommy and daddy who loved them. She died of colon cancer when I was a teenager. But I keep her with me by working for the health and well-being of my community. My career in social change is, in its way, a prayer.

2. What would success in public health look like to you?

There’s no final success. Public health, like every other form of the common good, is aspirational and incremental. It’s about more and more people enjoying opportunity and security. It’s about an ever-growing supply of positive liberty, with people not just free from legal constraints, but actually equipped to live the lives they want. There are, of course, concrete things to achieve like reduced rates of heroin overdose and African American maternal mortality. But public health is ultimately inextricable from the broader imperative of social justice.

3. As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A Beatle. In second grade, however, I did make a campaign poster saying, “Lava: The Only Way for President.”

4. What are the greatest challenges you face in your work?

I’m always working to figure out how to make as much change as possible within the constraints of municipal government, whether operational, financial, or political. To maximize impact, I’ve found we have to be flexible and relentless. That includes working creatively in partnership with stakeholders to notice and pursue opportunities when they arise. When the timing works — or if we make the timing work by going under the radar or finding a creative path — we can move the needle for families and communities.

5. Describe yourself in three words

Making change, hopefully.