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Via the New York Times, news of the death of a major public health figure:

Dr. C. Everett Koop, who was widely regarded as the most influential surgeon general in American history and played a crucial role in changing public attitudes about smoking, died on Monday at his home in Hanover, N.H. He was 96.

…Dr. Koop issued emphatic warnings about the dangers of smoking, and he almost single-handedly pushed the government into taking a more aggressive stand against AIDS. And despite his steadfast moral opposition to abortion, he refused to use his office as a pulpit from which to preach against it.

These stands led many liberals who had bitterly opposed his nomination to praise him, and many conservatives who had supported his appointment to vilify him. Conservative politicians representing tobacco-growing states were among his harshest critics, and many Americans, for moral or religious reasons, were upset by his public programs to fight AIDS and felt betrayed by his relative silence on abortion.

As much as anyone, it was Dr. Koop who took the lead in trying to wean Americans off smoking, and he did so in imposing fashion. At a sturdy 6-foot-1, with his bushy gray biblical beard, Dr. Koop would appear before television cameras in the gold-braided dark-blue uniform of a vice admiral — the surgeon general’s official uniform, which he revived — and sternly warn of the terrible consequences of smoking.

“Smoking kills 300,000 Americans a year,” he said in one talk. “Smokers are 10 times more likely to develop lung cancer than nonsmokers, two times more likely to develop heart disease. Smoking a pack a day takes six years off a person’s life.”

When Dr. Koop took office, 33 percent of Americans smoked; when he left, the percentage had dropped to 26. By 1987, 40 states had restricted smoking in public places, 33 had prohibited it on public conveyances and 17 had banned it in offices and other work sites. More than 800 local antismoking ordinances had been passed, and the federal government had restricted smoking in 6,800 federal buildings. Antismoking campaigns by private groups like the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association had accelerated.

Dr. Koop also played a major role in educating Americans about AIDS. Though he believed that the nation had been slow in facing the crisis, he extolled its efforts once it did, particularly in identifying H.I.V., the virus that causes the disease, and developing a blood test to detect it.

(Photos: Paul Hosefros [top] and Teresa Zabala, The New York Times)