Published March 16, 2011
Why do we have a Surgeon General? The position (which once used to involve running the Public Health Service) no longer carries any meaningful administrative responsibilities; it’s almost purely symbolic. The Surgeon General educates the public about various health-related issues. In practice, this generally means that Surgeons General act as secular preachers, wagging a finger at the American people for various vices like smoking and drinking. It is hard to see any real case for such a position in the federal government (a few years ago I argued in NR (subscription required) that the position should be eliminated or transformed back into one with actual administrative functions.)
But once in a while, when a real public-health concern emerges or when a concern is overblown and causes a needless panic, it can be useful to have some federal official lay out the facts with some authority. The director of the Centers for Disease Control could surely play this role, but since we do have a Surgeon General, all dressed up in a spiffy pseudo-military uniform no less, it makes sense for the Surgeon General to play that role when situations require it.
That is why yesterday’s reckless remark by Surgeon General Regina Benjamin was so outrageous. Asked by a reporter about the fact that people on the west coast, concerned that radiation from the Japanese nuclear reactors would be carried across the ocean, were stocking up on potassium iodide tablets (which are used to prevent radiation sickness), Benjamin said she thought this was a sensible precaution, and that it made sense to be prepared. Her statement flatly contradicted what public health officials across the west coast had been saying for days, and only added to the (at this point completely and utterly baseless) unease in California, Oregon, and Washington about the potential for fallout reaching our shores.
Potassium iodide is not only not a sensible precaution for Americans at this point, it can also be extremely dangerous for people with certain common allergies (like allergies to shellfish). And encouraging individuals to buy these pills is not part of any government response plan, even in the case of an actual radiation danger on American shores. The federal government has huge stockpiles of potassium iodide tablets formulated specifically for radiation emergencies that would be made available if the need arose (as the Japanese government is doing now, though even there they are being distributed only to people in close proximity to the reactors, as they would not be useful to people further away.)
Benjamin had clearly not thought through her remark — she started her answer by saying she hadn’t even been aware that people were stocking up. But that’s just the point. If the Surgeon General isn’t going to be useful on those rare instances when we could really use an official and authoritative voice on public health, then what is the point of her office? Do projects like her “Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding” (the latest major project of the Surgeon General’s office) really merit the resources involved? It’s hard to see how they would, especially when the Surgeon General makes actual public health panics worse.
Yuval Levin is Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs.