May 26, 2002 - Arizona Republic: Fighting tobacco nothing new for Liberia RPCV

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Fighting tobacco nothing new for Liberia RPCV

Read and comment on this story from the Arizona Republic on Liberia RPCV Leland Fairbanks who continues his crusade against tobacco use at:

Fighting tobacco nothing new for retired doctor*

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Fighting tobacco nothing new for retired doctor

By Edythe Jensen The Arizona Republic May 26, 2002

Where there's smoke, there's Leland Fairbanks.

The retired Tempe physician has spent more than half his life fighting public puffing and was the first to push for smoke-free hospitals more than 20 years ago.

"They call me a Taliban health czar, but they respect me," he said of opponents. "I don't grab people and pull cigarettes from their mouths."

Last week Fairbanks put another notch in his belt when Tempe voters approved the state's strictest smoking ban, with 52 percent of the vote. After the City Council failed to pass the measure, Fairbanks' Arizonans Concerned about Smoking gathered more than 12,500 signatures to force the public vote.

Born and educated in Minnesota, Fairbanks, 71, retired from private practice last year. But he has been putting in hundreds of volunteer hours on anti-smoking campaigns since he moved his family to the Valley in 1970.

Fairbanks, grabbing attention with almost non-stop talking about the health effects of secondhand smoke, is usually surrounded by a cadre of followers wearing yellow campaign T-shirts.

He says he's polite about it and has never felt threatened by opponents.

One of them is Fred Phillis, 61, of Gilbert. The lifelong smoker calls Fairbanks "the leader of a group of tobacco terrorists." But he blames smokers and business owners for the doctor's success in Tempe.

"They let Leland Fairbanks and his band of exploitation artists set the agenda," Phillis said. "You can't win a campaign by playing defense."

A onetime public health physician and Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia, Fairbanks started his crusade in the 1950s when he was as a hospital intern in New Orleans.

"Merchant seaman with lung disease were struggling to breathe, but they still wanted their cigarettes," he said. "Nurses would have to remove the oxygen and hold the cigarettes so they wouldn't drop and set the beds on fire. And the nurses would have to breathe that smoke. I decided then that I was going to be an advocate for those nurses."

He pushed for a ban on smoking in hospitals and complained when Phoenix volunteers were giving out cigarettes to hospitalized veterans in the 1970s . But Fairbanks didn't make headway until 1983, when the Hopi Hospital in Keams Canyon became the first in the nation to become smoke-free.

"We decided the best tactic is to get one hospital to do it, then others will follow," he said. "It worked, and it's the same tactic we're using in cities."

As an opponent of smoking, Fairbanks has won over politicians from Tucson to Flagstaff. In addition to Tempe, Mesa, Gilbert, Guadalupe, Surprise, Tucson, Flagstaff, and Pima County have smoking restrictions. Maricopa County is considering limits. Fairbanks played a part in all those efforts, circulating petitions, organizing local residents and speaking to government leaders.

"Lee is one of those rare people who has a passion for his values," says Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano, who has known Fairbanks for eight years but says he has heard him talk about something other than smoking only once. It was last fall, when Giuliano faced a recall election and Fairbanks told the mayor he supported him.

During the Keams Canyon hospital smoking debate, "they predicted doctors and nurses would resign, but they didn't," Fairbanks said. When federal health officials wanted to add a smoking room to that hospital, he called their bluff. "I told them if they were going to force us to put in a smoking room, it would be have to be in the morgue," he said. "They dropped the issue."

Fairbanks' activity drew national note. From 1985 to 1988 he was a member of the Surgeon General's National Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health.

He carries his cause home. A "no smoking" sign hangs on Fairbanks' front door because he said it's not nice to tell a smoker to extinguish a lit cigarette: "That's like telling someone to stop eating once they've started on a nice meal."

Hung above the anti-smoking stickers, campaign signs and T-shirts in Fairbanks' tiny Mesa anti-smoking campaign office is a yellowing poster signed by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. "A Smoke-Free Society by 2000," it reads.

Is it a sign of his movement's failure?

"No," Fairbanks said. "I'm old, and I've been working on this a long time. But I'm still working on it."

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