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What Does the Surgeon General of the United States Do?

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Updated September 21, 2009

Question: What Does the Surgeon General of the United States Do?
The Surgeon General holds the highest public health position in the federal government of the United States. But few of us know what the Surgeon General does, or what his or her responsibilities are. What does the Surgeon General do? And how does it affect American citizens?
Answer:

The Surgeon General of the United States is appointed by the President, approved by the Senate, and oversees all public health initiatives and programs for American citizens that involve the federal government's money. His or her visibility stems from responsibilities as a spokesperson for the federal government, representing its views on public health policy and initiatives.

To support these activities, the Surgeon General commands the 6400+ officers of the Commissioned Corps of the US Public Health Service (USPHS.)  As one of the Nation's seven uniformed services (US Army, US Navy, US Air Force, US Marines, US Coast Guard, NOAA Corps, US Public Health Service), the Commissioned Corps fulfills its mission to protect, promote and advance the health and safety of the Nation.

Public health initiatives are things like smoking cessation, reducing obesity including childhood obesity, promoting vaccinations, or any programs that involve the health of the citizenry of the country.

Officers of the USPHS are assigned to agencies of the Department of Health and Human Services such as the NIH, CDC, or FDA, as well other Federal agencies such as the Department of Defense or Homeland Security, plus state governments and others.  When not performing in their day-to-day duty assignments, officers of the USPHS are called upon the respond to national emergencies, natural disasters and other public health crises, including international humanitarian assistance.

It would seem as if most of the topics encompassed by public health and the Surgeon General would be very non-controversial. We all want improved health and safety! However, it turns out there have been many Surgeon General controversies in recent history:

  • Dr. C. Everett Koop took on the tobacco industry and AIDS beginning in the 1980s. Both stirred up a great deal of controversy, as did his previous writings about abortion.

  • Dr. Antonia Novello was the first woman appointed to the post, in 1990. She took on a number of initiatives including whether abortion could be discussed as an option to pregnant women, plus illegal underage drinking and smoking.

  • In 2006, Dr. Richard Carmona left the post of Surgeon General highly critical of George Bush's administration, accusing him of suppressing research findings if they conflicted with Bush's political and ideological agenda.

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