Half a century after US surgeon general Luther Terry’s seminal report linking lung cancer to smoking, leading the US charge at the 16th World Conference on Tobacco or Health is the youngest incumbent to that post in over a century — vice-admiral Vivek H Murthy, a second generation American of Indian origin.
Dr Murthy, who assumed office less than three months ago, told The Indian Express that India could internalise some of the public outreach strategies of the US government, particularly the move to involve religious organisations — a measure India partially adopted when it reached out to Muslims through clerics in the fight against polio.
“We should engage faith leaders from all faith communities because tobacco is something that does not discriminate based on whether you are Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Jewish or Buddhist — it affects everyone. That is why we need engagement of faith leaders across the spectrum. This is an approach we are taking in the US as well and we have found the faith community to be incredibly helpful when it comes to reaching the population, particularly high-risk segments which traditionally don’t interact with the healthcare system,” Dr Murthy said.
Born to Indian parents in the UK, Dr Murthy moved to the US when he was 2 years old. At 38, he is one of the youngest surgeon generals ever — only two people younger than him have held that post in the 19th century. He co-founded VISIONS, an HIV/AIDS education program in India and the US, which he led for eight years. He also co-founded the Swasthya project, a community health partnership in rural India, to train women to become health providers and educators.
He said he has spent a lot of time in India working on projects and visiting family. “I have been very concerned about the smoking rates in India as well as the rates of chronic diseases, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension. It is critical for India at this stage to reduce the use of both smoked and smokeless tobacco,” he says.
He describes India as an important global partner in the tobacco fight but treads cautiously on the question of political engagement. “I don’t want to comment on that because I have not been exposed to too many discussions with political leaders… Having just started in this position, I have not built any concrete projects or commitments to do work in India but we are just getting started. We are very interested in furthering the work we are doing in expanding our dialogues and partnerships with other countries, including India, because we know tobacco is a global problem that needs global solutions and global partnerships and India will be a very important partner in that effort,” he says.
That said, he does not commit on when his country, one of the principal backers of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), will ratify that treaty. USA is a signatory to it but till it is ratified, a country does not need to implement it.