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Nixon’s Surgeon General

Lawrence Bush
August 4, 2017

Jesse L. Steinfeld, a professor of medicine who became the country’s eleventh Surgeon General during Richard Nixon’s first term as president and used his office to challenge the tobacco industry, died at 87 on this date in 2014. Dr. Steinfeld was a top official at the National Cancer Institute under President Johnson before becoming Surgeon General in December 1969. He was not reappointed during Nixon’s second term because, he believed, of his outspoken opposition to tobacco and to television violence. “Citing new studies showing that women were less likely than men to quit smoking,” writes William Yardley in the New York Times, Steinfeld “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.” He was also an early warner about the dangers of second-hand smoke. Steinfeld changed the warning labels on cigarette packages to a more definitive message that “the Surgeon General has determined that smoking is hazardous to your health,” and helped push through a ban on tobacco advertising on television and radio. “Some of his ideas,” Yardley continues, “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.”

“He took on other issues as well. He argued successfully for the government to take a larger role in promoting the fluoridation of water, banning the pesticide DDT and banning cyclamate, an artificial sweetener thought to cause cancer. He also argued that violence on television had a disturbing effect on the social development of children, and called for networks to impose some type of self-censorship or to, at least, label programs that contain violence to alert parents. His superiors ordered him not to testify before Congress on the issue, but he was subpoenaed and decided to testify without clearing his testimony first. That further frayed his relationship with the administration.” --Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.