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May Wilkerson May Wilkerson

Dr. Jesse Steinfeld, Anti-Smoking Pioneer, Dies at 87


The surgeon general behind the ubiquitous warning on cigarette packages fought hard to alert the public to the dangers of smoking.

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Jesse Steinfeld was a pioneer in the anti-smoking movement. Photo via

Dr. Jesse Steinfeld, OG of the anti-smoking movement. Photo via

Most of us take the “Surgeon General’s Warning” on a pack of cigarettes for granted. But the well-known words—”The surgeon general has determined that smoking is hazardous to your health”—are the result of a hard-won battle by one Dr. Jesse Steinfeld, who died this week at age 87.

Steinfeld was a cancer researcher and professor at the University of Southern California’s medical school before becoming the US surgeon general under the Nixon administration from 1969 to 1973. During this time, he campaigned passionately to alert the public to the dangers of smoking, at a time when most people were still unaware.

His anti-smoking campaigns included changing cigarette package labels to display a more severe warning. Until then, the packages merely stated that tobacco use “might” be connected to health problems. He also campaigned to protect people from secondhand smoke, and promoted public smoking bans decades before they became common laws. His daughter, Mary Beth Steinfeld, says his hard-won battles were “a good lesson for everyone on how long it takes to change public opinion.”

Needless to say, Big Tobacco was not Steinfeld’s Biggest Fan. Pressure from tobacco lobbyists is though to be the reason he was forced out of office by Nixon’s administration in 1973.

Steinfeld died of a stroke at his home in Pomona, California. His other daughter, Susan Steinfeld, said: ”He laid the groundwork for us to be better people and make the world a better place.”