Big Idea is an occasional series in which we connect investors and businesspeople with new and emerging perspectives from academia and elsewhere.
In the same week that the World Health Organization declared an end to the three-year Covid-19 pandemic, the U.S. surgeon general highlighted a far more complex and dangerous vector propelling disease and death. Maybe you missed it.
Vivek Murthy’s 82-page report, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” contains scorching statistics about a beleaguered country: Social isolation is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It accounts for $6.7 billion in excess Medicare spending a year. It is prevalent enough to count as an epidemic.
Still, the May 2 document was the bombshell that wasn’t exactly heard around the world. The surgeon general issued a call to action that brings together six scientific disciplines including sociology, neuroscience and economics that ostensibly seek to lift a gray cloud hovering over the country. He flicked at hundreds of potential solutions for Americans’ loneliness, from reviving social clubs to practicing gratitude, to designing parks that foster connection among humans.
There’s a very good chance that Murthy’s theory of everything — despite its large scale and ambitious scope — will fade away with little impact. On the other hand, maybe it won’t. Past reports by surgeons general have had big economic impacts — direct and indirect — and set changes in motion that presaged innovation and growth in years to come. Some of their consequences were immediate; others took decades to emerge.
- In 1964, Surgeon General Luther Terry released a report on smoking and health, which concluded tobacco was a major cause of lung cancer and other diseases. The report, released on a Saturday to prevent the securities markets from convulsing, led to a decline in smoking, which in turn spurred productivity and economic growth. A harder-hitting assessment by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in 1988 documented tobacco use as an addiction, similar to that of heroin and cocaine. Smoking has since plummeted to 11.5% of adults from 28.1% that year.
- In 1988, Koop also published a report on AIDS, which led to increased funding for research and prevention. From that moment until AIDS became a treatable disease, in 1997, the government had spent a cumulative $51 billion on funding, over $8 billion in that last year alone. (In contrast, the government set aside less than that for cancer research this year.) Koop mailed a condensed version of his report to all 107 million U.S. households. When the U.S. government truly backs an initiative, it often works.
- In 2004, Surgeon General Richard Carmona issued research on obesity, saying it was a major public health problem. The report helped to promote healthy eating and exercise habits. The share of overweight men and women eventually dropped to 30.3% from 33.4% when Carmona’s report was issued. That is expected to chip away at the $173 billion in annual obesity-related health-care costs. Carmona said at the time that America’s weight problem is a “bigger threat than terrorism.”
And in 2023, the current surgeon general is advising policy at all levels of government and among companies to weave in what he calls the core value of connectedness.
The scourges of smoking, AIDS and obesity focused the mind – and dollars – on singular issues. Smoking became verboten, AIDS was defeated by biomedical research, and obesity, while still rampant, has decreased amid a rise in wellness.
To be sure, there’s no prescription for Murthy’s disorder, no hot pharma stock to pile into. Disconnection is a feature of modern life, where town squares are empty and chat rooms are full.
But look again. Consultants are buzzing around the subject as large employers try to rejigger corporate life post-pandemic. Online psychotherapy has taken root — both as a VC-backed opportunity (hello, Dr. Chatbot!) and as a way for providers to reach more patients and reduce overhead.
Murthy’s report, with no funding attached and little appeal to the animal spirits of commerce, may (ironically) lead to hopelessness for some readers. Others may recall the so-called war on cancer, which started in 1971 under President Nixon.
Without much progress over the years, Barack Obama and running mate Joe Biden sought to reboot the effort with a grand plan in 2008. Fourteen years later, Biden would do so again with a program called Cancer Moonshot, whose goal is to cut in half the cancer death rate by 2047. If successful, one of the battles in that war may be won – 76 years after it started.