The proverb "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" applies hands down to two of the top uniformed public health officials in the United States, both of whom are at war with harmful lifestyle behaviors.
Acting U.S. Surgeon General Rear Adm. Boris Lushniak and Maj. Gen. Dean G. Sienko, commander of U.S. Army Public Health Command, shared a recent strategy session at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, the home of the USAPHC. Tobacco use, obesity and inactivity are likely to suffer from the encounter.
The two leaders hope to join forces to increase the impact each of their organizations has on reducing preventable deaths in the United States.
Lushniak, who leads the National Prevention Council, pointed out that tobacco use is the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the U.S., and obesity and low activity are tied for No. 2.
Unfortunately, the Army owns an unhealthy share of the nation's health problems.
Sienko responded that only 23 percent of American youth can meet the weight qualification for entering military service. He frequently cites statistics that indicate about 31 percent of Soldiers use tobacco, and 69 percent of Soldiers are either overweight or obese, as well as two-thirds of retirees and adult family members.
Joining forces would seem to make sense.
"We want to find where we can work together to better the public health infrastructure of our nation," Lushniak said. "As well, our skill sets and goals are as closely aligned as they can be."
In the fight against chronic lifestyle diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack and stroke--diseases that are preventable--Lushniak emphasized the need for broad partnerships.
"It takes more than a village, it takes business, government, faith-based organizations, healthcare--everyone," he said. "Our priorities aren't anything novel, they're a reemphasis of the familiar."
In the work of prevention and health promotion, Lushniak advocates a return to simple lifestyle changes.
"Let's go retro," he said. "Let's begin to walk again, let's start cooking again, let's start breastfeeding again. Let's do the things we know are good for our nation's health. It's not as complicated as people think.
The Army, through its Performance Triad effort, shares the goal of building good health by making it simple to understand what to do to achieve it.
The USAPHC leads the charge in implementing the Army's Performance Triad initiative. This initiative aims at teaching Soldiers and retirees, their families and Army civilians how to achieve the three elements of good health: getting enough sleep, engaging in activity and eating well.
Lushniak thinks that people want to be empowered to take control of their health, and the goal of public health professionals should be to "get them the right information and let them make the right decision."
The Public Health Service he leads is one of our country's seven uniformed services. It consists of career professionals who care for the nation's vulnerable populations, respond to routine and emerging public health threats, and protect and promote the health and safety of the U.S. population.
Additionally, Lushniak, a physician certified in preventive medicine and in dermatology, fills the role of our country's top doctor.
"My portfolio includes not just the uniformed service but also the role of 'the nation's doctor,' he explained. "The nation's doctor component includes science and communication--taking the best science available and communicating it or translating it for the American public."
He is passionate about this role.
"No one is necessarily going to know the surgeon general's name, but they know the brand. When the surgeon general issues a warning or a call to action, it means something," he said. "I am overwhelmed with humility that everyone--the press, the public--picks up on that. That power--we call it the bully pulpit--still exists."
Those who attended the Aberdeen Proving Ground meeting can attest both to the strength of his conviction that prevention is the best way to health (he is an avid cyclist, runner and hiker), and his ability to use the bully pulpit to challenge his hearers to contribute.
"We have to be symbols of health and fitness. In the U.S. Public Health Service, for example, there's no smoking in uniform," he said. "You who wear the proud uniform of the U.S. Army, should you also not be an example of health and fitness?"