Atlanta, Georgia, United States | Mark A. Kellner, Adventist Review

Vice Admiral Regina M. Benjamin, M.D., 18th Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service, praised Seventh-day Adventists for their commitment to healthy living.

"It's a great honor to be here with so many of you who share the enthusiasm for leading a healthy lifestyle," Benjamin, 53, told delegates at the church's 59th General Conference Session in Atlanta, Georgia. "It's been really exciting for me to learn about all of the innovative thinking that's been going on here at the Seventh-day Adventist Church to make health something you live, [and] not just something that happens to you; the basic understanding that mind and character are essential to God's plan, that wellbeing as a whole person and that preservation of health is essential."

Benjamin praised the health reform work of W.K. Kellogg and his brother John Harvey Kellogg, who was appointed superintendent the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, as part of the Adventist movement's early health reform efforts. Her exposure to health and leadership principles early in her career as a member of the prestigious Kellogg National Fellowship Program "was my first exposure to the Seventh-day Adventist lifestyle [message]," she said.

"It's easy for us to live well as others are living well," Benjamin said of the impact of the spread of healthy lifestyles in a community. She commended delegates for signing a temperance pledge (see related story), saying such unity is "powerful, and praised the Adventist Church for participating in U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" program and its toolkit for congregations.

"Prevention," Benjamin said, "is the foundation of our national public health system."

Benjamin also used her time on the session platform to inveigh against tobacco use and moving to a smoke-free society, "particularly in our youth"; promote the prevention of HIV and AIDS, "especially in women and girls"; and speak in favor of violence prevention, the latter having risen "to a public health level." She added, "Throughout all of these things, we need to work to eliminate health disparities."

The Surgeon General said, "I want to encourage Americans to eat more nutritiously, exercise regularly, and maintain healthy lifestyles. And because as Seventh-day Adventists you are trusted messengers in your communities and you play a critical role in promoting public health outreach, especially [in] healthy living, I especially want to work with you - and look forward to it - in your local congregations to help us become a more healthy and fit nation, and fit world."

Asked about the issue of emerging partnerships between government and faith-based organizations, and what is permissible, Benjamin said, "I believe we should work with everyone, and work with faith-based organizations, work with industry, work with civic groups [and] organizations, and work with Americans. ... And that's where faith-based organizations will come in, particularly when we want you to stop smoking and to eat healthier and to exercise more. I can say this forever, but when they hear it from their minister or their pastors, they may think twice and say, 'This is important.'"

She said the vision is to spread the health message through churches, synagogues and mosques: "You may talk to two people and have touched hundreds of lives by doing that."