Essential Pittsburgh
4:18 pm
Tue August 12, 2014

Aliquippa-Born Doctor Was An Early Opponent Of Big Tobacco

Credit United States Government

Only a few decades ago, the public’s attitude toward cigarettes was remarkably different. Cigarettes were smoked in public, they were recommended by doctors, and were even smoked by pregnant women. Awareness of the dangers of smoking, and the public change of opinion can largely be traced to one man: West Aliquippa native Jesse Steinfeld.

Steinfeld was the first surgeon general in the Nixon Administration and spoke out against cigarette smoking, bringing new attention to the risks it posed and leading to the ban of smoking in most public places. He died last week at age 87.

Stanton Glantz who studies the health effects of secondhand smoke at Stanford University, discussed the legacy of Dr. Steinfeld.

“The thing that he did in 1972, was he was the first government official, let alone surgeon general, to call for a nonsmokers bill of rights, and to say that cigarette smoke is indoor air pollution. and just as we know that pollution outdoors is bad, it stands to reason that worse pollution indoors is bad too. And to just give you an appreciation of how radical that view was, in 1972 you could still smoke in elevators. The suggestion he made, which was that we have no smoking sections, that the smokers all sit on the same side of the conference room and the workplaces allow the nonsmokers an area of their own was just viewed as radical. The tobacco companies went completely berserk, and successfully put pressure on Nixon to fire Steinfeld.”

Glantz said that Steinfeld had fought earlier to change the labeling on cigarette packs, from “smoking could be hazardous to your health” to “smoking is hazardous to your health.” In spite of that, little has changed since Steinfeld’s time.

“The big success he had was getting the warning labels improved in the early 70s. Unfortunately we still have the same warning labels on cigarettes today, when our knowledge has gone way past what we knew even back then… the Obama Administration is still dragging its feet on imposing really stiff regulations on tobacco products.”