Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be able
to join this distinguished group here at the American Public Health Association. Earlier
this year in January when celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first ever Surgeon
General’s report the one on smoking and health we had a reunion here in New Orleans and it
was in conjunction with the fact that Surgeon General Regina Benjamin had been appointed
to an endowed professorship at Xavier University in public health and so we we were delighted to be able to meet at Xavier to celebrate the 50th anniversary, but also to celebrate this very important appointment.
Now, there’s something very familiar about this setting. You see, back in 1997 after serving
as a director of the CDC for about five years President Clinton nominated me to serve as
the 16th US Surgeon General and Assistant Secretary for Health, but this was in August
of 1997, but in November I believe in Indianapolis the American Public Health Association met
and I was invited to come there to speak and the night before the opening session I received
a call telling me that my nomination had been put on hold by Senator Ashcroft and that was
the beginning of a long struggle, but there was another message that came that night and
it was that President Clinton who was supposed to give the keynote dress at the opening
session the next day was not going to be able to make it and he wanted me to give the keynote
dress. So, it brings back memories to be here. The American
Public Health Association has been very important in my career. I was appointed Surgeon General
in February of 1998, but I did want to say one thing about the struggle to get through
the whole nomination in the Senate because some of the major players in that
were not members of President Clinton’s party. They were people like Senator Orrin Hatch
and especially Senator Bill Frist from Tennessee and Senator Frist supported me because he
knew me from the time that I had served as President of Meharry and Senator Hatch knew
about a lot of the programs that I had pushed at the CDC. Some of the same programs that
Senator Ashcroft was using against me, but what was so great about that was that people
of different parties came together for what they believe and they didn’t have a standoff
based on whether they were Republic or a Democrat, but they came together and supported or opposed
me based on what they believe and it was great when my nomination was finally approved.
My agenda as Surgeon General was sort of shaped in part by my experience as director of the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During that period of time obviously we were
very concerned about smoking and health and of course as you know the CDC does most of the
research for reports dealing with smoking and health through the office of smoking and
health. So, when I became Surgeon General I released three reports of smoking and health
over period of time one dealing with the minorities in smoking, one dealing with women and smoking
and one agenda for reducing tobacco use. A report that was later used by the World Health
Organization and its treated development dealing with smoking and health. So, that
area turned out to be very important as you would expect based on our work at the CDC
before that period of time. Later, I was able to release the first ever Surgeon General’s
report on mental health and actually of all of the reports that I released I think the feedback from that report stood
out. I received letters and telephone calls from people all over the country expressing
the fact that they were so pleased that the Surgeon General was finally taking on the
issue of mental health. I especially remember a letter that I received
from a young man who related to me that when he was eight years old his mother had experienced
suicide and he was eight and nobody would talk with him about what happened to his mother.
So, he went through life knowing that his mother committed suicide, but not being able
to talk about it and he explained to me that because of the report that we had released
he was gone call a meeting of his family the next week and they were going to talk about
his mother’s suicide. So, I received several letters like that. Another report that we were able to release later was the report on overweight and obesity which we released in December of 2001 and it was a very interesting report in terms of the way we work together to put
that report out. It was very important. Now, when the election took place in 2000
and President Bush was elected I had a year left on my term because of the delay in my
confirmation when I was confirmed and the Senate gave me four years President Clinton only
had three years left on his term so when President Bush was elected I went to him and I said,
“Well, President Bush I know that I have a year left on my term, but I also know you
want to appoint your own Surgeon General so I just want you to know I’d be happy to step
down.” And he said, “No, David I want you stay on and serve out your term.” And I did
and I’m really happy that I did because if I had not stayed that last year I would never
have released the report on overweight and obesity, the first report on that topic. I also would
never have released a report on mental health, culture, race and ethnicity. We had worked
on these reports, but they never would have been released if I had not stayed that last
year and I never would have released that report on sexual health.
Now, I have to say that the report on sexual health was probably what convinced the Bush
Administration that they were ready for me to go so it was interesting it’s only the
report I released where the secretary did not show up at the press conference and when asked about the report by the press, President Bush’s spokesperson said, “Well, President Bush didn’t
appoint that Surgeon General anyway.” But I mean, I think we laugh about it, but what
the Surgeon General does for this country is irreplaceable. Our role, our responsibility
is to communicate with the American people based on the best available public health
science not religion, not personal opinions, not politics, the best available public health
science. But it is a challenge, but I just hope that the role of the Surgeon General
in this country will survive all of those challenges because I think the American people
need that particular role. Since leaving government I have continued
work with mental health as many of you know and I’ve also continued working with overweight and
obesity by starting the program Action for Healthy Kids, but the Satcher Health Leadership Institute
has a mission of developing leaders in medicine and public health who are committed and prepared
to working to reduce and ultimately eliminating disparities in health. As Assistant Secretary
for Health I had a responsibility for leading the development of Health People 2010 and
it was in that report that we first announced the goal of eliminating disparities in health. That goal was later of course followed by joining with the World Health Organization
goal of Global Health Equity. Those are very important goals and I hope we in fact will
stay the course until we have reached those goals. We have a saying at the Satcher Health Leadership Institute it is that in order to eliminate
disparities in health we need leaders. We need leaders first and foremost who care enough,
but we also need leaders who know enough, we need leaders who have the courage to do
enough and we need leaders who will persevere until a job is done. We need the Surgeon General
to continue. Thank you.