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updated: 8/6/2014 10:15 AM

Surgeon general who fought tobacco dies at 87

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  • Associated Press/Courtesy Steinfeld familyFormer U.S. Surgeon General Jesse Steinfeld, who became the first surgeon general ever forced out of office by the president after campaigning against the dangers of smoking during the Richard Nixon era, has died in Southern California. He was 87.

      Associated Press/Courtesy Steinfeld familyFormer U.S. Surgeon General Jesse Steinfeld, who became the first surgeon general ever forced out of office by the president after campaigning against the dangers of smoking during the Richard Nixon era, has died in Southern California. He was 87.

 
By KRYSTA FAURIA
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- Dr. Jesse Steinfeld, who became the first surgeon general ever forced out of office by the president after he campaigned hard against the dangers of smoking during the Richard Nixon era, died Tuesday. He was 87.

Steinfeld died Tuesday morning in a nursing home in suburban Pomona following a stroke he suffered about a month ago, said his daughter, Susan Steinfeld of La Canada Flintridge.

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"He laid the groundwork for us to be better people and make the world a better place," she said by telephone.

Steinfeld was a cancer researcher and taught at the USC medical school before serving as Nixon's surgeon general from 1969-1973.

In office, Steinfeld won the ire of the tobacco industry for his stubborn efforts to publicize the hazards of smoking. He changed cigarette package labels that lukewarmly stated tobacco use might be connected to health problems.

Steinfeld's label boldly warned: "The surgeon general has determined that smoking is hazardous to your health."

He issued a report in 1971 that argued for tighter restrictions on smoking in public to protect people from secondhand smoke. He promoted bans on smoking in restaurants, theaters, planes and other public places -- decades before such prohibitions became commonplace.

"It's a good lesson for everyone on how long it takes to change public opinion," said another daughter, Mary Beth Steinfeld of Sacramento.

Steinfeld refused to meet with tobacco industry lobbyists and hung signs around his office that read, "Thank you for not smoking," she said.

Steinfeld believed his anti-tobacco stance led to Nixon's request for his resignation at the start of Nixon's second term.

"He always used to talk about how he thought the tobacco companies were pressuring Nixon to get rid of him," Mary Beth Steinfeld said.

After Steinfeld left, the position of surgeon general remained vacant until President Jimmy Carter appointed Dr. Julius Richmond in 1977.

The only other surgeon general to be forced out of office was Dr. Joycelyn Elders, who was fired in 1994 during President Bill Clinton's administration, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Steinfeld was also vocal on other controversial issues, arguing that television violence has a bad influence on children, promoting the fluoridation of water and bans on the artificial sweetener cyclamate and the pesticide DDT.

Steinfeld later served as the Director of the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Medical Cancer Center and as a professor at the Mayo Medical School. He also was the president of the Medical College of Georgia, in Augusta, from 1983-1987, when he retired.

In addition to his two daughters, Steinfeld is survived by another daughter, Jody Stefansson of Pasadena, California; his wife, Gen, of Pomona, California, and two grandchildren.

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