A doctor, Steinfeld mostly taught and did cancer research, but he also served as an associate director at the National Cancer Institute. When Richard Nixon became president in 1969, his staff saw that Steinfeld was amiable and would be a good Surgeon General who would parrot the conservative line, especially about lessening government interference in private lives. After all, in 1964, the Surgeon General had issued a report (written by H.U. Honoree Peter VanVechten Hamill) showing that smoking caused cancer, creating quite an uproar. Steinfeld would help calm things down. Wrong!
After getting the post, Steinfeld found there was a second report on smoking being prepared, and he got behind it. That report, for the first time, implicated “second-hand smoke” as a health concern, and Steinfeld used that to implement the first ban on smoking in public buildings, and proposed adoption of a “Non-Smoker’s Bill of Rights” to enable non-smokers to escape the health consequences of people smoking near them in public. The “Caution” on cigarette packages, instituted after Hamill’s report, was upgraded to a “Warning”. Instead of saying smoking “may” cause health problems, tobacco companies were required to admit on the package that smoking “is” hazardous. When Nixon announced his “War on Drugs” Steinfeld wouldn’t get behind it. Steinfeld said in a speech that smoking and its associated diseases was the country’s “Number One” health problem, not drugs. As a result of it all, the tobacco companies dubbed Steinfeld the “worst surgeon general ever” and lobbied for his removal; he was forced to resign in 1973. Nixon refused to appoint another Surgeon General, but the dominoes had started falling: the warnings stuck, and smoking was prohibited in more and more public places. Dr. Steinfeld “was at the leading edge of the social changes we are all benefitting from today,” says tobacco expert Stanton A. Glantz of the University of California/San Francisco. “Even getting partial smoking restrictions was a major accomplishment at the time.” Dr. Steinfeld went back to teaching, and retired in 1987. He died August 5, after a stroke. He was 87.