NYT: Surgeon General Is Missing In Action

Ouch!

Mark Bittman, the smart, pithy New York Times columnist and food activist comes down hard on the U.S. Surgeon General today in a piece called “Our M.I.A Surgeon General.” It’s true, the nation’s doctor, Regina Benjamin can be frustratingly on-message when speaking to the press and is clearly not a risk-taker with her public health campaigns (more on our experience with this later). But Bittman is relentless here, calling her “virtually invisible” and questioning her courage. (It probably didn’t help that Benjamin declined Bittman’s request for an interview.) Here’s more from his column:

Benjamin, like most of her predecessors, is virtually invisible. Whether that is a personality trait, a lack of courage (hard to believe — she’s a Catholic who supports abortion rights), a lack of qualification or a sign of the impotence of her office is something she won’t help us figure out: her representative declined my request for an interview.

But her most public work, the 2010 document called “The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation,” has a decidedly mild Michelle Obama-ish tone. In discussing the obesity crisis, it lays the blame squarely at the feet of … the victims: “In addition to consuming too many calories and not getting enough physical activity, genes, metabolism, behavior, environment, and culture can also play a role in causing people to be overweight and obese.”

Put aside the imprecise, non-grammatical writing. Instead of talk about curbing the marketing of junk to children, we get a discussion of “limiting television viewing”; instead of banning soda from schools, we get “Make sure water is available throughout the school setting.” In short, instead of criticizing the industry for peddling and profiting from poison, it criticizes us for falling prey to it.

We’ve interviewed Benjamin several times and have always come away wishing she’d be a bit more out there and aggressive about her message, whether it’s on the importance of prevention or on exercise. As Bittman notes, she’s got an incredible bully pulpit and should be exploiting it far more powerfully.

A case in point: Back in November 2010 my fearless blog partner Carey Goldberg did something that’s a lot harder then you may think: she asked Benjamin about her weight:

Why even ask about her weight in the first place? Isn’t it her own personal business?

Yes, of course, but the personal becomes political when you take high office. Dr. Regina Benjamin is a heroic physician from Alabama who served the poor through hurricanes and high water. When she took office as surgeon general last year, the blogosphere swarmed with negative comments from people who thought that the highest health official in a country mired in an obesity epidemic should not be…how to put it? Should not, as a role model, appear to have a Body Mass Index above the healthiest range? (Salon: “Is Regina Benjamin too fat to be surgeon general?“)

But Benjamin didn’t take the bait. She was slightly vague about her exercise and food regimen, said she walked a lot in airports, and didn’t “excercise for any particular dress size.”

There’s still time: maybe Benjamin will turn the corner and rise up as more forceful advocate against junk food and for the millions of Americans struggling with obesity. Yes?

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