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From Surgeon General To Smoking Foe: Remembering Dr. Steinfeld


When Doctor Jesse Steinfeld first walked into his new office as Surgeon General in 1969 he was greeted by a dozen ashtrays. He replaced them with signs - thank you for not smoking. Steinfeld became a leading crusader in the anti-smoking movement, despite opposition from the Nixon administration that appointed him.


JESSE STEINFELD: I hope that in this next year each American citizen will review for himself the summary findings of what is no longer an honest disagreement among medical scientists about the hazards of cigarette smoking. There is no disagreement. Cigarette smoking is deadly.

CORNISH: In 1972 Steinfeld issued a blistering report on the hazards of secondhand smoke. And the next year he was forced out of office. But not before he instituted tougher warning labels on cigarette packages and a smoking ban inside government buildings. Doctor Steinfeld died yesterday at age 87. To speak more about his legacy we turn to Stanton Glantz. He studies the health effects of secondhand smoke at the University of California, San Francisco. And Stanton Glantz, Dr. Steinfeld was not the first Surgeon General to warn about the hazards of smoking. But he certainly came to be a controversial figure. Can you talk about why?

STANTON GLANTZ: Well, the Surgeon General's before him had identified smoking as a cause of disease in smokers. Dr. Steinfeld was the first to say smoking also was causing disease in non-smokers. Up until then smoking was really viewed as a personal health decision that only affected the smoker, the tobacco companies were talking about freedom and choice and leaving people alone. And by bringing the non-smokers into the discussion as he did when he publicly called for a non-smokers Bill of Rights in 1972 it permanently changed the dynamic around the tobacco issue.

CORNISH: When you hear that little bit of tape of him talking at a press conference, what does it tell us about what kind of personality he had in terms of what kind of - what made him a good face for this particular fight?

GLANTZ: He's a fearless guy. And it's important to remember that the tobacco industry's primary defense against the evidence that smoking was causing disease was to say it was an open question - that reasonable scientists could disagree. Steinfeld said, no - the evidence is overwhelming that smoking is causing disease.

CORNISH: You know, it wasn't until the '80s that there were more studies about the effects of secondhand smoke. Can you talk about what Dr. Steinfeld was going on in terms of his stand on this issue?

GLANTZ: Well, what the Dr. Steinfeld did was he looked at the fact that secondhand smoke is air pollution. And we already had a growing scientific evidence that air pollution was bad. And he did something which has become increasingly rare and that is he applied a little common sense and clinical and scientific judgment and he said, you know, if this air pollution outdoors is bad, the air pollution you get indoors from cigarettes - that's got to be bad.

CORNISH: I want to ask you a little bit more about his policy legacy. We mentioned that he helped with the institution of tougher warning labels on cigarette packages but also the smoking ban inside government buildings. How significant was that?

GLANTZ: If you think back to 1972 you could still smoke in elevators - you could still smoke on airplanes. Smoking was everywhere. And the idea that policy interventions were necessary to protect non-smokers from the air pollution that secondhand smoke caused, I mean, it was just a radical, radical view. And it demonstrated that the tobacco industry's claims that if you did this the sky would fall were just not true. He planted the seed which has led to the huge changes with tremendous positive health impacts that we're seeing not only here in the United States but all over the world.

CORNISH: Stanton Glantz, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GLANTZ: My pleasure.

CORNISH: We were talking about former Surgeon General Dr. Jesse Steinfeld. He died yesterday at the age of 87. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.