Dr. Sanjay Gupta is CNN’s chief medical correspondent, and he spoke to contributing writer David Hochman for the September 2015 Playboy Interview. Gupta talked about his friend Dr. Oz, Obamacare, marijuana, doping in the NFL, cell phone radiation, vaping and his old boss, Hillary Clinton. The whole interview, which also includes some good health advice, can be found here.
ON DOPING IN THE NFL
Speaking of letting it slide, is it safe to say the NFL gets a pass when it comes to steroid use, or are we just missing it the way we did with Lance Armstrong?
There’s a funny thing about doping in the NFL. I don’t think we’re missing it; I think we’ve just become complacent. There’s no way these guys can be that gigantic. Humans don’t evolve that fast. If you look at pro football players from the 1970s and compare them with their counterparts today, you wouldn’t recognize them. Football players from that time were sort of lean and trim, and today’s players in those same positions are massive. Clearly there is doping going on in the NFL and perhaps the NBA and NHL too. But the whole sport of football is based on hitting people hard, so these guys make themselves huge.
ON CELL PHONE RADIATION
Cell phone radiation?
I obviously use a cell phone. I have two of them. But I don’t love putting one to my ear more than I need to. This is one of those things where sometimes there’s a provocative discussion among the neuroscience community. Ionizing radiation is what everyone pays attention to. Microwaves, X-rays—we know those things are ionized cells and cause cancer. But the phone is releasing non-ionizing radiation. There’s not as much evidence that non-ionizing radiation causes problems. But we never looked at it in the doses we’re looking at now. People have these things planted to their ear all day. I think that could become a concern. Some of the international studies have found upticks in cancer among people who use cell phones the longest amounts of time. But correlation doesn’t equal causation, and other factors may be in play. I personally use a wire earpiece when I’m on the phone. It keeps the radiation source away from my brain. And I don’t keep it in my front pocket because that’s where the bone marrow is, and I’d rather be safe.
What’s your take on vaping?
The CDC has released a statement about it saying there are a lot of chemicals in the vapor that we simply haven’t been able to define. That’s scary. My feeling is, they’re better than cigarettes and okay if you’re using them for smoking cessation. But why are they marketed to people who don’t smoke? There’s clearly a mission to get young people and nonsmokers to use a product they weren’t using, and that doesn’t fit the core mission of e-cigarettes.
What’s your assessment of Obamacare so far?
Fundamentally, the Affordable Care Act is a good thing, but it has problems. The rollout was terrible. Kathleen Sebelius did one interview after the rollout, and that was with me. She didn’t come off looking so good. There was this sense that having cleared all the hurdles of Congress and the Supreme Court, they could relax. Not very impressive. I also think the numbers of people being helped by this could have been higher had more states agreed to expand Medicare coverage under the act. But they said no thanks, and that left around 30 million people without benefits. Overall, it’s great that more people are insured, but even that doesn’t create a healthier America. Access to health care doesn’t solve the problem. We all know people with terrific health insurance who are still wildly unhealthy. You almost need to take a beat and ask what the real goal is. Is this an equality issue? Is this a health issue? These are questions the government could have asked more forcefully.
ON TURNING DOWN THE JOB OF SURGEON GENERAL
You turned down President Obama’s offer in 2009 to become surgeon general. Do you feel you’ve had more influence as a media person than you would have had in that position?
Aside from a few cases, such as C. Everett Koop, the surgeon general hasn’t been highly influential. I was looking to take the job at first, but I knew the Senate confirmation hearing and the vetting would be laborious for me and my family. My father worked in the automotive industry for 30 years and has retirement investments that he would have had to divest himself of if there were any related to health care. The bigger issue was that I wouldn’t be able to practice surgery anymore, and I love being a surgeon.
Wait—the surgeon general can’t be a surgeon?
It’s the great irony of the job. You can practice afterward, but you need to be surgeon general full-time while you’re in the position. The problem is that if you leave surgery for four or eight years, you have to retrain. For neurosurgery it’s a seven-year training program. To not be able to practice medicine for essentially a decade seemed a very big deal. I was only 39 at the time. The surgeon generals have mostly been a lot older and retired.
Were you surprised by the reaction you got when you came out in favor of medical marijuana? One late-night talk show host started calling you Ganjay Supta.
A little surprised, yes. I was concerned years ago about the potential for substance abuse with legalized marijuana. But I hadn’t really dug into the research on the benefits of this plant. When I did, I saw how useful marijuana is for many patients and also that it doesn’t have a high potential for abuse. Nobody overdoses on weed. I’ve spoken to hundreds of people—patients, scientists, researchers—who have used it to calm down epilepsy, to ease symptoms of multiple sclerosis, to help with pain. We need to start thinking about marijuana as medicine. It has been used as medicine for thousands of years. While I think developing brains are susceptible to certain harmful effects and would never advocate marijuana use for young people, I think time will show that cannabis can help adult patients with symptoms when nothing else can. It can be useful when everything else has been tried and hasn’t worked. Look around the world. Israel has done some incredible research in this area. We visited and talked with scientists like Dr. Raphael Mechoulam about marijuana’s anti-cancer effects and the benefits for those suffering from PTSD. I think it should be a legalized medication in this country.
What’s your personal history with weed?
I tried pot. I didn’t really like it. It wasn’t medicinal quality. Someone offered it to me, and it definitely had an effect. Mostly it made me anxious, and I didn’t like that feeling. I’m an in-control sort of guy, so I honestly wouldn’t do it again.
ON BEING A LIBERAL
You worked as a White House fellow in the office of first lady Hillary Clinton. Does that tell us everything we need to know about your politics?
I’m a pretty liberal guy. Being journalists, we work our whole careers predicated on freedom of speech. I value humanitarian causes that are liberal, so I probably lean more liberal, though not as liberal as all my colleagues within CNN.
ON HILLARY, HER ABILITY, HEALTH AND AGE
What kind of president would Hillary be?
She was a really good boss. I ended up writing a lot of speeches, so I spent a significant amount of time briefing her and collaborating. She’s very knowledgeable. You don’t want to walk into a room with Hillary Clinton without knowing every detail about what you’re discussing. She’ll call you on it. That was good for me and it fit my personality. I think we got along pretty well.
As far as being president, that’s a good question. I’m a little biased because I know health care is an important issue to her. She certainly has a better pedigree than she had as first lady. She’s been a senator, she’s been secretary of state. She has good relationships with world leaders. But it raises the question of what makes a good president. Being very smart is important, and she is, but some of the best presidents weren’t necessarily the smartest people in their class. You have to be very strategic, and I think she is. You have to have clear positions on issues like ISIS, which she’s very engaged with. I think the least important factor is that she’s a woman. She downplays that and even said to me that there are countries with women in power that also have a strong history of oppression against women—Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Indira Gandhi in India. The fact that Hillary’s a woman shouldn’t make a difference.
From a health standpoint, is she too old?
No. I was recently at the Clinton Global Initiative and spent a fair amount of time with her. She’s sharp. She has good energy. I think if anything she’s sharper now than she was back in the 1990s.
ON DOING SURGERY IN THE FIELD IN IRAQ
You went to Afghanistan and later to Iraq. What was the moment like when you improvised with a Black & Decker drill to perform brain surgery on a wounded soldier in the heat of the Iraq war?
Some moments get seared forever in your memory. There were sandstorms that day. I had been embedded for a few weeks with this group of naval doctors called the Devil Docs, a group supporting the First Marine Expeditionary Force. You get to know each other really well when you’re hopscotching around the desert, responding to whatever calls come in. In a sandstorm things come to a stop because you have no air support. We were outside Camp Viper, south of Baghdad, when one of the lieutenants asked if I would stop being a journalist and take a look at a patient.
His name was Jesus Vidana. He had been on patrol somewhere nearby and had taken his helmet off for some reason. He got shot by a sniper in the back of the head and was declared dead in the field. But then someone found a pulse, and that’s when they came and asked if I’d put on my surgeon’s cap. He had a significant injury to his head and had too much pressure on the brain from the bullet. The blood was pressing on his brain stem. We needed to take a bone out of his head or he’d die. We didn’t have the right tools, but I remembered seeing a Black & Decker drill with all the bits. We had sterilizing solution, but I needed to create a sterile barrier because it was really dusty inside the tent and I literally had to have the guy’s brain exposed. I filleted a plastic IV bag and essentially used that to create the outer layer of his brain. I drilled the hole, extracted the bone, relieved the pressure, and it worked. We wrapped him up and put him on a Black Hawk.
Did you ever hear from him?
I did. He did really well. But it was a wild time. I operated a few times like that out in the field. People know I’m a doctor from TV, so I get asked, and I’m happy to oblige.
ON DR. OZ
You walk into a hospital and see two office doors. One says Dr. Oz, the other Dr. Drew. Which do you open first?
It depends on what you’re looking for. Dr. Drew is a psychiatrist and treats chemical dependence, so if I had a problem with addiction, I’d see him first. Dr. Oz is a great surgeon, very well regarded among cardiologists and also a friend.
He got in trouble for touting miracle diet cures. Did that surprise you?
I like him and respect him. He clearly overextended his language, and I think he would tell you that if he were standing here now. The fact of the matter is that he has a show to do every day. I understand the predicament. We always have a ton of news to report, but you have to come up with a show every day that may not be based on the news. That’s challenging. Also, to get people to watch you, you have to engage the viewer. He explained himself by calling it flowery language. That’s a subjective thing. It might have gone over the line, but I don’t think he’s irresponsible. Ninety-nine percent of his messages are completely accurate and really important. The more people hear information about our bodies, our diet, our fitness, the healthier we become.
Read the entire Sanjay Gupta Playboy Interview here.