The United States 17th Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona spoke here at University of California, Berkeley about his experiences in life and the position of being Surgeon General. He served in that post for four years from 2002-2006, and because of the characteristics of the office he was able to represent the American people, and not just a particular political constituency. This he said creates a unique, but real problem because he can speak the scientific truth as no politician can, and because of that all politicians consider him an enemy. He said the conventional wisdom in Washington, “If you want a friend in Washington … bring a dog. But it is worse than that if you are the Surgeon General, he said, so it’s a good idea to bring two dogs, because one of them may die or turn on you.” He spoke at some length about his early life growing up in New York city which ultimately was saddened because his mother, and grandmother didn’t live to see him graduate from high school – their fondest hopes. But, absolutely beyond their wildest dreams was the possibility that he would become a doctor, and the person responsible for the health of everyone in America. In this station he succeed in increasing the life expectancy of us all. Among other things, he is the one who brought secondhand tobacco smoke to the world’s attention, and thereby helped curb the sale, and distribution of that noxious weed, and thus to limit its life destroying effects. This is a very difficult thing to accomplish because many people have become wealthy selling this horribly addictive drug, and don’t want to give up their money, and power. They support the tobacco lobby, and have put billions of dollars into the pockets of politicians to write laws to maintain their legal right to distribute their product—the end result of which is to kill a half a million Americans every year. This is five hundred times what the terrorists did only once in the history of the US, and these business people have been doing it every year and are still doing it with the blessing of the American Congress. Dr. Carmona as the Surgeon General had real enemies in Washington, and not just the usual word-smith news hounds looking for a sensational news story.
At the end of his lecture I asked him if the American food industry isn’t culpable of all of the same vices which the tobacco industry has been shown to be guilty of—that they are forcing products upon Americans which they don’t need, and which are in fact destroying their health, and killing them. I tried to make the point that it isn’t the food itself that is unhealthy—as is the case with tobacco—there is plenty of healthy food available, it’s that the industry is tricking the public into eating entirely too much of the wrong kinds of food. I said the real problem is how to get Americans to be more physically active, and how to get them to stop eating every meal sooner. We batted this back, and forth a bit, but I don’t think that I got through to him the essence of the idea that we need to learn how to stop overeating by stopping eating sooner. I mentioned the evil practice of supermarkets placing real food as far from the front door as possible so that the shopper must walk through mountains of flashy, poor quality food to get to the real food. Is it possible to pass a law that a reasonably short list of basic healthy foods must be placed near the entrance? But the real problem is to stop eating sooner and walk more. If we could figure out a way do accomplish that then we could bring to an end the worst of the obesity epidemic.