During the campaign, Barack Obama got tagged for being too much of a celebrity, with a famous ad that displayed images of the then-Senator interspersed with photos of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. So, my first thought upon hearing the news that Obama intends to name Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN fame as the next Surgeon General was, "Here we go again." But, my second thought was that this appointment makes a great deal of sense.
The Surgeon General’s job is not to devise cutting edge technological or medical advances. His or her job is to further the public health of the nation and on three issues especially, the principal need is for someone who can communicate effectively with the public, especially with young people. Gupta is a star in front of the camera and if anyone can devise a way to reach young people and change their behaviors, it is him.
Obesity is an epidemic among the nation’s youth. But, if you read what they read, magazines about celebrities and reality television personalities (and it is better to put pins in your eyes than to have to read what they read), you would think that anorexia is the nation’s foremost medical problem. Every time a Hollywood starlet puts on a few pounds, her career is endangered. A trip to the health spa is not about being healthy; it is about being thin. This has to change.
Gupta can take a page from his predecessors’ who realized that to get teenagers to stop smoking they had to make smoking uncool. Sexy became linked to good health and good breath, movies no longer featured sultry stars taking slow drags on their cigarettes, a series of ads directed specifically at young people painted smokers as ignorant bumpkins who should no better. It worked. Smoking rates plummeted.
Unintended pregnancy is another urgent issue. I am not a creative sort, so I am not sure how you convince teenagers with raging hormonal issues that sex is uncool. But, I think Gupta can find ways to convince kids that an unintended pregnancy is definitely uncool. These cultural waters are treacherous, given the variety of views about contraception, sex education, parental rights, etc. But, there is broad agreement that preventing unintended pregnancies is critical in the effort to lower the abortion rate, so the possibility of finding some common ground is worth the effort.
HIV/AIDS is on the rise among young people, especially among young African-American males. A five-city study by the Center for Disease Control in 2005 showed that among young gay black males, the infection rate was 46 percent, a rate that rivals sub-Saharan Africa. Shame on the mostly white, and mostly well off, leadership of gay rights organizations for putting gay marriage ahead of fighting HIV/AIDS at the top of their agenda. Gupta needs to shine a bright light on this issue, enlist the aid of churches, community organizations and cultural stars like actors and ball players to address this horrific and avoidable epidemic. We know how to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS but we have not figured out how to get that information to the young people who need it.
There is a lesson here for the pro-life community as well. In America’s star-crazed culture, one of the ways to make people see the value in adoption over abortion, in abstinence over sexual promiscuity, is to make good choices cool. Some kids listen to their pastors but others listen to their sports heroes and favorite actors. Did I miss the statements from the pro-life leaders or the bishops praising Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie for adopting? I am not a fan of the star-crazed aspects of our culture, but they are a fact, and if we can raise the adoption rate by using them, so be it.
The Gupta nomination makes sense. Let’s hope he can make a change in some of these public health challenges.