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Can We Have An Overweight Surgeon General?

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The debate over the "fitness" of Obama's surgeon general nominee, Dr. Regina Benjamin, for office is raging.

Can the 52-year-old doctor from Alabama, easily forty pounds overweight, advance a cogent policy for our national obesity without controlling her own fork, many are asking?

Should we put a convicted drunk driver in charge of highway safety while we're at it?

But others say the criticism is hypocritical and sexist.

smoker
Isn't Obama himself a smoker? Doesn't his chief White House economic adviser, Larry Summers, require a reinforced chair not just for his adiposity but his narcolepsy in high level meetings?

Doesn't Benjamin's weight challenge make her the perfect spokesman for conscientious eating like a certain TV talk queen?

Besides, say fat acceptance groups, who says you can't be fat and still healthy?

One pundit with no tolerance for the "acceptance" movement is African American Chicago personality Nate Clay, whose overnight show on WLS-ABC radio has a large following.

Discussing a TV ad for an eating disorder that told viewers their overeating was "not their fault," he used to say, "Who the heck's fault do you think it is? No one made you walk into the kitchen and open the refrigerator door but you."

The Chicago Sun-Times' Laura Washington is equally as blunt in her newspaper columns. She attacks "those lame old rationales African Americans use to cover up the obesity problem," like, "We're naturally big-boned," "Diabetes, heart disease and gastric maladies run in the family," and "We eat to combat the stress of a racist society."

"It's not about beauty, or some socio-political gobbledygook," she rouses. "It's about saving our lives."

Many in New Orleans remember "people's" doctor, Dr. G., who would see patients for a nominal few dollars in his office in the Maison Blanche building on Canal Street. While giving buggy drivers' tetanus shots, female impersonators hormones and strippers diet pills - dance on Bourbon street fat? - he chain smoked Salem longs! What kind of health did that... model?

Of course no one would tolerate a surgeon general nominee smoking today - or practically any doctor... yet we still tiptoe around oral addiction itself.

Who realizes, for example that Paul Newman, John Updike and George Harrison all died from lung cancer after a life of smoking? That their deaths were probably preventable? That's not what the obits said!

We don't call someone on their smoking or obesity because it's not their fault and even if it is their fault, it's tough to quit, even if it's possible to quit, since millions have done it, After all, we don't want to be rude.

We don't mention it because we don't want to blame the victim (victims who inflate health care costs) or claim the moral high ground or tell someone how to live.

Who can say enabling?

One politician who isn't enabling is Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the force behind the ban on airplane smoking enacted twenty years ago and the new FDA powers to regulate tobacco which passed in June, the most sweeping anti-smoking legislation ever.

Why does he care? Durbin's father smoked two packs a day of Camel and guess what happened to him.

In a Sun-Times article called, "Latifah Shouldn't Be Proud Of Health Risks," Laura Washington calls the rap queen who says she "weighs in the '2's" and "couldn't be happier," out on the carpet.

"Latifah is a role model for countless young women and girls who admire her for besting the misogynist rap culture and claiming stardom on her own terms," says Washington. But her obesity is a "part the ladies should be running away from - as fast as they can."

Maybe Washington will show similar "tough column love" for Benjamin.

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist, who writes about public health

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