The 96-year-old Koop, who died Monday, bore strong opinions and earned similar criticism from foes in politics, religion and business, particularly Big Tobacco. In a purely aesthetic sense, Koop was known far and wide for his dapper vice-admiral uniform and striking beard.
All of that pales, however, to his contribution to Americans’ viewpoints on smoking — a contribution that, given the correlation between tobacco use and steep health concerns, can’t be minimized.
Recall Americans’ mindsets in the early 1980s. When Koop took office, one-third of Americans smoked, The New York Times reported Tuesday. Bothered by what he felt was the Reagan administration’s weak support for anti-smoking initiatives, Koop conducted a nationwide speaking tour in 1984 to preach the links between cigarettes and cancer.
By 1987, 40 states had banned smoking in public places and 33 had banned it on public conveyances, while 17 had restricted it from offices and work sites. Additionally, more than 800 local antismoking ordinances had been passed.
When Koop left office in 1989, 26 percent of Americans smoked. In 2010, the latest year of statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19 percent of Americans smoked; of those, 69 percent want to quit.
Koop’s devotion to America’s smoking problem can be traced to when he began researching the strong links between tobacco use and cancer. He was “dumbfounded,” The Times reported, “and then plainly furious at the tobacco industry for attempting to obfuscate and trivialize this extraordinarily important public information.”
In fairness, Koop’s legacy has more than one chapter. He was equally as vigorous in telling the nation about the rising storm of HIV and AIDS, a fact that mustn’t be forgotten.
Koop set the modern-day standard for how the office of the U.S. surgeon general can be out front — and influential — on a host of health issues critical to Americans. As proud as we are of Mobile’s Regina Benjamin, the current surgeon general, we’d like to see her become Koop-like in shaping Americans’ views on public health.