The next time you pop open a bottle of Barefoot, check for a warning. “According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy.” You’ve probably seen this before.
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy MED ’03 SOM ’03 visited campus this past Wednesday to talk about his time on the job thus far and the issues he’s been focusing on.
One of the central themes of Murthy’s work is his focus on preventative medicine. In a culture that treats chronic disease after it takes hold, Murthy thinks about ways in which diseases like obesity and diabetes can be preemptively stopped. At the talk I attended, he stressed the importance of nutrition education and physical activity, and how he’s working with business leaders and city planners to prioritize walking to combat diet-related disease. He’s shining a spotlight on mental health, aiming to reduce the stigma and shame associated with mental illness.
I can’t help but feel like Murthy could be more radical, using his position as the foremost public health official in the country, and his potential celebrity, to more forcefully campaign for the public’s health. Past surgeons general have used their post to such effect — so can Murthy.
By 1988, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop was a household name. After Reagan failed to address the climbing death toll of the HIV/AIDS crisis, Koop mailed a pamphlet to every household in America, which he used as a platform to speak frankly about a disease that Americans may not have been “used to discussing openly,” given its reputation as a “gay disease.”
“In spite of what you may have heard,” Koop explained, “the number of heterosexual cases [of AIDS] is growing.” His recommendations were controversial, and not without criticism — his suggestion that people use condoms more frequently, for example, didn’t jibe with the socially conservative milieu within which he found himself. To promote the public’s health, Koop was unafraid to rock the boat.
Murthy is no stranger to controversial statements. In 2012, he tweeted that gun control should be considered a public health issue. A year later, President Obama nominated him for the post. During his confirmation hearings, the tweet was used against him, and partisan critics feared he would use the seat to play politics rather than public health. It’s understandable that such an episode — one that prolonged the confirmation process to a little over a year — would keep Murthy from taking a more activist role.
But I think he can still rock the boat. At his talk, he discussed how his office sought out partnerships with large employers that could work to promote healthy eating and physical exercise in the workplace. Were he to go a step further, he might critique the role these companies play in contributing to the obesity crisis in the first place. Are processed food companies like PepsiCo, for example, guilty for peddling junk food? Or should Johnson & Johnson, a company that recently joined the Surgeon General’s “Let’s Get Moving” partnership to promote exercise, ensure the drugs it markets are safe? (Check out Steven Brill’s series on Johnson & Johnson in Huffington Post — it’s scathing.)
Murthy doesn’t strike me as risk averse. He’s led nonprofits that have promoted health education. Ever the MBA, he founded a tech startup that has “disrupted,” so to speak, the way medical research is done. He can bring this verve he’s had in all of these other experiences to Washington.
Sure, Murthy can partner with businesses, but he can hold them accountable too. The surgeon general has a relatively toothless role. He can’t legislate, and he can’t regulate. But he can use his celebrity and authority to set a public discourse on health that is urgent without being overly controversial. He’s already appeared alongside Elmo on Sesame Street, discussing the importance of vaccination in preventing the spread of infectious disease. He can do more.
Murthy’s still got time at his post to make more waves. In a country where a presidential candidate can actively perpetuate anti-vaxxer misinformation, or where an industry can still get away with shady behavior that threatens public health, we need a First Doctor who will stand firm.
Austin Bryniarski is a senior in Calhoun College. His column runs on Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .