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Surgeon General

The Surgeon General And A Smoke-free Future

The U.S. Surgeon General is charged with the protection and advancement of health in the United States. Since the 1960s the surgeon general has become a highly visible federal public health official, speaking out against known health risks such as tobacco use, and promoting disease prevention measures such as exercise and community water fluoridation.

The U.S. Surgeon General's Office is a unit of the Office of Public Health and Science, which is a major component of the HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES DEPARTMENT (HHS). The surgeon general is appointed by the president and serves as a highly recognized symbol of the federal government's commitment to protecting and improving public health.

The surgeon general performs four major functions: promoting disease prevention and health in the United States through special health initiatives, advising the president and the secretary of the HHS on public health issues, encouraging the enhancement of public health practice in the professional disciplines, and administering the PUBLIC HEALTH SERVICE Commission Corps in ongoing and emergency response activities. The corps is comprised of approximately 6,000 doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and scientists.

The surgeon general oversees research on public health matters and writes reports that inform the medical profession and the public about ways of preventing disease. These reports have dealt with topics such as tobacco use, HIV and AIDS prevention, drug abuse, and the need for physical exercise.

The 1964 report of surgeon general Dr. Luther L. Terry on tobacco, entitled Smoking and Health, is perhaps the most famous example of how the surgeon general draws public attention to public health concerns. In 1964, 46 percent of all U.S. citizens smoked, and smoking was accepted in offices, airplanes, and elevators. Television programs were sponsored by cigarette brands. Terry's report concluded that smoking causes cancer. This conclusion became the foundation for later efforts to ban tobacco advertising from television, to restrict smoking in public places, and to place warning labels on cigarette packages. Since the 1964 report, smoking rates have declined from 46 percent to 25 percent.

Other surgeons general have sparked public controversy as well. In the 1980s Dr. C. Everett Koop's advocacy of the use of condoms to reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS angered religious groups and others. Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders, who was sworn in as surgeon general in September 1993, was forced to resign in December 1994 for promoting masturbation for young people as a way to avoid teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.


Kluger, Richard. 1996. Ashes to Ashes. New York: Knopf.

Office of the U.S. Surgeon General Website. Available online at <www.surgeongeneral.gov/sgoffice.htm> (accessed February 17, 2004).


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