What does the Surgeon General do?

Mary McMahon

The United States Surgeon General is the head of the United States Public Health Service, a branch of the government which is responsible for promoting public health both through direct intervention and through the use of policy. The Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a uniformed service of the United States, provides the Surgeon General with a literal army of public health workers. Because the Public Health Service is uniformed, the Surgeon General has a military ranking, as do members of the Corps, although they are classified as non-combatants.

In the US, a Surgeon General's warning is found on tobacco products.
In the US, a Surgeon General's warning is found on tobacco products.

The origins of the position of Surgeon General lie in the early days of the United States, when a public health commissioner was appointed to oversee the health of the American military. In 1871, a formal Surgeon General position was created, and the work of the Surgeon General was extended to include the civilian population. The Surgeon General works within the Department of Health and Human Services, reporting to the Assistant Secretary for Health.

Surgeon Generals are appointed by the President of the United States, and confirmed in a Senate hearing. One of the most important roles is as a policy advocate. The Surgeon General works with the Assistant Secretary for Health and the President to promote sound health policies for the United States. Working with the Office of the Surgeon General, this appointed official also reviews emerging trends in health care, examines the results of studies, and occasionally issues rulings and warnings such as the prominent Surgeon General's Warning found on tobacco products.

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The Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, which works under the supervision of the Surgeon General, provides a variety of services ranging from disaster response to product safety inspections. Members of the Corps also engage in health research, health education, disaster preparedness, and policymaking. As members of a uniformed service, they can also be “loaned” to other uniformed services as needed, and they are potentially liable under the rules of military justice, even though they are non-combatants.

While the Surgeon General could be viewed as a figurehead due to his or her role as a spokesperson, heading the Public Health Service is no small task in a nation the size of the United States. The Surgeon General must be able to respond to emerging health threats in numerous locations, and being able to work comfortably with representatives of other health services and organizations is critical, as the Centers for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration, and other organizations all play a role in administering healthcare to Americans.

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Discussion Comments


@hamje32 - That’s to be expected. The Surgeon General addresses issue of public health. Certainly sexual diseases would be in the sphere of public health and I suppose one could argue that pornography might fit in that scope – or it might not.

I am not arguing either way but the point is, the Surgeon General will usually reflect the biases of the President that he is serving under. There are very few offices and administrations nowadays really that are truly neutral in my opinion.


The Surgeon General can get involved in issues that are quite controversial politically. I remember back during the years of the Reagan administration, C. Everett Koop was the Surgeon General.

One of the things he did was to put out the Surgeon General report on the dangers of pornography. He really believed that pornography was detrimental to society.

Of course many conservatives believed his report, but many liberals – including those in the Washington press corps – openly derided and ridiculed him. Hollywood wasn’t exactly too welcoming either, but of course that could be expected. So sometimes the Surgeon General does kind of get in the mire of controversy from time to time.


@LisaLou - While smoking has probably been one of the biggest issues the Surgeon General is known for, there are a lot of other policies they are involved with.

In recent years the Surgeon General and obesity has been one of the areas their office has become involved with. With adult and childhood obesity being so prevalent in our country, they are working on different programs to address this issue.

I find it interesting that this position is actually considered a military position. If I ever learned this about the Surgeon General, it had sure slipped my mind.


Whenever I hear anything about this position, I always think about the Surgeon General's smoking warnings. As far as I know this is still on every package of cigarettes, how smoking can be harmful to your health.

I think there has been different wording through the years, but the principle is still the same. I don't know how much this has deterred people from smoking, but at least it is a constant reminder for them.


I used to be a big fan of the TV show The West Wing and they had a couple of interesting episodes with the Surgeon General. In one episode, before the audience had met her, the Surgeon General seemed to call for the legalization of marijuana, or at least its decriminalization, while participating in an online chat. One of the president's daughters spoke out in support.

It was an interesting look at the idea of a Cabinet member who should be independent, but could be a political liability. The president ultimately refused to accept her resignation and kept her on.

A few seasons later, they brought the character back when the president was ill. He wanted her to be the one to brief on his condition since she was, in a sense, the nation's doctor.

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