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

The 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.

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