Jesse L. Steinfeld, Surgeon General and Tobacco Foe, Dies at 87


Dr. Jesse L. Steinfeld in 1972, when he was surgeon general.  Credit Associated Press

The cause was complications of a stroke, his daughter Susan Steinfeld said.

Dr. Steinfeld had been a top official at the National Cancer Institute under President Lyndon B. Johnson before President Richard M. Nixon named him surgeon general in December 1969. He soon developed a contentious relationship with the tobacco industry, which lobbied for his dismissal.

Along with many other top administration officials, he was asked to submit his resignation after Nixon’s re-election in November 1972. He later said that he had not expected the resignation to be accepted, but it was. Nixon did not appoint a permanent successor.

Dr. Steinfeld said he believed he lost the job because of his efforts to reduce smoking and his concerns about violence on television.

He arrived in office amid increasing attention to smoking as a public health issue.

Beginning in 1965, after a report by a previous surgeon general, Luther L. Terry, cigarette packs were required to bear labels saying, “Caution: Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health.” In 1970, under a bill initially proposed during the Johnson administration, the labels were strengthened to say, “Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health.”

The surgeon general’s office had been required to issue reports about smoking since the mid-1960s. But with increasing evidence that smoking caused lung cancer and other diseases, Dr. Steinfeld made the issue his own and his office a bully pulpit.

Citing new studies showing that women were less likely than men to quit smoking, he helped lead a campaign to reduce the number of female smokers. He spoke out against how tobacco companies marketed cigarettes to women and warned that smoking could be dangerous to women’s health and to the health of their children, born or unborn. He said smoking ruined teeth and caused wrinkles.

“I am puzzled by women’s attitudes toward smoking, the tenacity with which they cling to this habit despite the compelling health and aesthetic reasons there are for quitting,” he said in 1972.

Dr. Steinfeld was among the first public health officials to warn of secondhand smoke. When he became surgeon general, he removed ashtrays from his office (his two predecessors smoked) and put up signs that read, “Thank you for not smoking.”

Some of his ideas, including bans on smoking in restaurants, airplanes, trains and other public places, did not take hold for decades. His boldness gave momentum to activists who opposed smoking and sought similar restrictions.

Industry critics accused him of lying.

“The results of public misinformation are evident,” David S. Peoples, the president of the tobacco giant R. J. Reynolds, wrote in a letter to Elliot Richardson, the secretary of health, education and welfare in 1972. “Public transportation, for example (including the open-decked Staten Island Ferry), is beset with no-smoking policies on the basis of the surgeon general’s arbitrary campaign to ban all smoking.”

Jesse Leonard Steinfeld was born on Jan. 6, 1927, in West Aliquippa, Pa., near Pittsburgh. He was the son of Jewish immigrants from Hungary. His father, a smoker, died when he was 5 years old. His mother ran a dry goods and hardware store.

He finished high school at 16 and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh 19 months later. He was 22 when he received his medical degree from what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

He studied oncology during a residency at the University of California, San Francisco, and later taught medicine there. In 1954, he moved to the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. He returned to California in the late 1950s to teach and do research at the University of Southern California but moved back to the Washington area in 1968 to work again at the cancer institute. Later that year he was appointed deputy assistant secretary for health and scientific affairs.

Organizational changes in 1968 left the surgeon general without a clear line of authority — the position had previously supervised the Public Health Service — and some sought to abolish the office altogether. But the title had a high profile and respect on Capitol Hill, and Dr. Steinfeld embraced the role of a public figure. In addition to his antismoking activism, he spoke frequently against what he regarded as the negative effects of television violence on children.

He later held several teaching and administrative positions at medical schools and hospitals. He was director of the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center in Rochester, Minn., in the mid-1970s before moving to California to teach at the University of California, Irvine. He also served as chief of medicine at the V.A. hospital in Long Beach.

He was later the dean of the school of medicine of the Medical College of Virginia and president of the Medical College of Georgia.

Besides his daughter Susan, his survivors include his wife of more than 61 years, the former Gen Stokes; two other daughters, Dr. Mary Beth Steinfeld and Jody Stefansson; and two grandchildren.

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