All Vivek Murphy wants for Christmas is a label maker?

Published 2:18 pm Friday, June 28, 2024

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“It is time to require a surgeon general’s warning label on social media platforms,” Vivek Murthy writes in a New York Times op-ed, “stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents.”

An incredibly dumb idea, but it enjoys a certain amount of public attention because Vivek Murthy’s day job is with the federal government  as (checks notes) surgeon general.

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If Murthy wants a “warning label” on something, why not just order it instead of whining about it in the Times? Two reasons: The first is that he can’t just order it. The office of surgeon general doesn’t come with a label maker. He only gets one if Congress gives him one.

The other is that his op-ed isn’t about “protecting children” or “the public health.” It’s about grandstanding on a current moral panic so as to associate the name “Vivek Murthy,” in the public consciousness, with “protecting children” and “the public health.”

As his second surgeon general stint likely nears its end, Murthy’s obviously trying to burnish his “public intellectual” credentials for a more successful return to the not-so-private sector. Instead of reprising his previous four years in the TV talking head / non-fiction book authorship (Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World) wilderness between the Obama and Biden administrations, he’s presumably hoping for a steadier gig with a larger paycheck — at MSNBC, perhaps, or CNN.

“Protecting children” and “the public health” are to political demagoguery as Gallagher’s tricycle or Steve Martin’s “arrow through the head” are to stand-up comedy.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how one looks at it, “warning labels” do little to discourage, and may even encourage, the behaviors they “warn” about.

I started smoking as a teen, a couple of decades after Congress let the surgeon general Luther Terry borrow its label maker for use on cigarettes in 1964. The next person I meet who’s my age and claims to have never taken up smoking because of those warning labels will be the first. Ineffectual.

As for encouragement, anyone paying attention knows that kids actively seek out music, movies, etc. with “mature content” warning labels. Those labels essentially serve as “this is the good stuff” advertising for the products they appear on.

The only valuable prospective use for “warning labels” on social media platforms is as an “I made that happen” item on Murthy’s resume. Kids looking for an “I’m edgy” thrill would treat the “warning labels” as endorsements; parents inclined to panic over their kids’ use of TikTok or Instagram would do so with or without Murthy’s assistance.

In the meantime, there’s that pesky constitutional prohibition on compelled speech. Congress shouldn’t ignore it, but probably will.

(Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.)