What is the Proper Role of the U.S. Surgeon General?

rmbenjaminThe job of the U.S. Surgeon General has always been a challenging one to describe. No, he or she doesn’t have to be a general surgeon, or a surgeon of any kind, for that matter. Rather, the surgeon general traditionally uses the position as a bully pulpit to speak to Americans about major issues, staying above the fray to reach the broadest possible audience.

When a surgeon general wanders off message, trouble usually follows. Remember Dr. Joycelyn Edlers?

The New York Times is reporting tonight that the current surgeon general, Dr. Regina M. Benjamin has a new “pet cause,” and it has to do with African American women’s hair. “Too many women forgo exercise because they’re worried it will ruin their hair.”

A reporter called me for my take on the issue:

Today, some question Dr. Benjamin’s focus on such a “niche” issue as putting health before hair.

The role of the surgeon general is traditionally, and appropriately, to take on big issues,” said Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank. “I don’t know whether the surgeon general’s role is to engage in smaller issues like this. It strikes me as bizarre.

As I told the reporter, I’m all for the surgeon general promoting exercise, especially at a time when the obesity debate has skewed towards focusing on “calories in” without enough attention to “calories out.”

But at a time when we have a wide range of serious health problems in need of innovative solutions, this just strikes me as odd. It wasn’t just a one-off comment, but it is, as the Times reports, a “pet-cause.”  If this is the best the surgeon general can do, it makes me wonder whether the office ought to exist in the first place.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.