U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher to Leave Office This Week
U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher's four-year term ends tomorrow, and in an interview with the Associated Press, Satcher said he is "proud" that he addressed "politically tough issues" such as sex education and needle-exchange programs during his tenure as the nation's top physician, the AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports. Satcher said he views the surgeon general's duty to be one of communicating scientific information, but he added that he has sometimes found it "difficult" to remain neutral on areas that are politically charged. For example, two months after Satcher became surgeon general, President Clinton decided to prohibit federal funding for needle-exchange programs, stating that they "send the wrong message." Satcher, who supports needle-exchange programs, was also serving as assistant secretary for health at the time and had to "duc[k] a question" about his personal opinion on the issue on the day the decision was announced (Meckler, AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 2/8). During an interview on NPR's "Morning Edition" yesterday, Satcher explained that the controversy over needle exchange illustrates the conflict that can occur between scientific discovery and political pressures. "The science showed very clearly that needle-exchange programs could reduce the spread of HIV and that they did it without increasing drug use. In fact, later studies showed that people involved in needle-exchange programs were more likely to go into treatment programs to stop using drugs. So I spoke for that public health science. But as you know, the political position was that the government should not fund needle-exchange programs," he said (Edwards, "Morning Edition," NPR, 2/11).
Satcher said that independence is among the most important qualities of a surgeon general. "I hope that ... the American people will (always) be able to say the surgeon general does not speak for the administration," Satcher said (AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 2/8). AP/Newsday notes that Satcher demonstrated such independence when in June 2001 he issued a report backing comprehensive sex education that was "denounced" by the Bush administration (Meckler, AP/Newsday, 2/8). Satcher said he regrets that the controversy over the report "obscured its public health message," which was that health officials should "stress abstinence" to young people but should also "trust them with information about how to protect [themselves]" if they are sexually active (Stolberg, New York Times, 2/9). "We want to talk as if everyone's going to be abstinent. We want them to be abstinent, but we know 65% of high school students are sexually active before they graduate. There has to be a balanced message," Satcher said (Las Vegas Sun, 2/8). The full segment of the "Morning Edition" Satcher interview is available in RealPlayer Audio online.