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Smoking ban battle was not funny to commissioner with healthy wit


Dr. David Grossman, health commissioner for Lucas County and Toledo, speaks with Jerome Palazzolo in his private practice on Alexis Road.

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There's a joke about a man who says, “Doc, it hurts when I move my arm.”

“Well, then don't move your arm,” the doctor replies.

David Grossman is that kind of doctor.

It's 7 a.m., and he's bantering back and forth with his first patient of the day, a man in his 60s.

“I'm gaining weight, what's going on?” the man complains.

“You're eating too much,” Dr. Grossman shoots back.

And so it goes for much of the morning.

An elderly man in his 70s who is in for a physical gets drilled on whether he's been behaving: “You haven't taken up smoking, drinking, or younger women have you?”

“Oh yeah, I still booze it up. I have three or four beers a year,” the man laughs.

Dr. Grossman, 53, stops to chat with two drug company representatives in the hallway and asks if they've got any new Viagra jokes. No luck.

His friend, Dr. Bill Facey, says the constant joking isn't unusual.

“He could do stand-up comedy pretty much anyplace,” Dr. Facey says. “In a social setting, almost everything that comes out of his mouth is humorous.”

What came out of his mouth in September, 2000, however, wasn't so funny - at least to smokers.

Dr. Grossman, health commissioner for Toledo and Lucas County, stunned many people when he pushed the health board to ban smoking in all public places, including bars and restaurants. He was the first health commissioner in Ohio to propose such a far-reaching ban.

The hate mail started almost immediately.

“It was interesting to be called Hitler or a smoking Nazi,” says Dr. Grossman, a former smoker who is Jewish.

The teasing from friends, co-workers, and others was relentless.

“Believe me, we'd be in lots of restaurants, and he'd take so much crap from the owners. They'd send over packs of cigarettes,” says his best friend, Ken Brochin, a Toledo dentist. “They'd ask him if he wanted a cigar or cigarette. They'd recognize him and say, `Hey, doc, can we smoke?'”

Dr. Grossman's son, Jacob, didn't think too highly of the ban either.

“I thought it was kind of a crazy idea,” says Jacob, a 20-year-old Chicago college student who smokes.

Dr. Grossman couldn't even escape the teasing on the golf course and had to be careful where he left his golf gear.

“A good friend of mine would leave cigarette butts in my golf shoes,” Dr. Grossman chuckles.

In the end, opponents had the last laugh.

Although the health board passed the ban, it was struck down by the Ohio Supreme Court in August after being challenged by Lucas County bar and restaurant owners.

Larry McAllister, president of the American Lung Association of Ohio, calls Dr. Grossman's losing battle brave. Mr. McAllister says Dr. Grossman is a pioneer in the sense that while many other health commissioners may privately agree with Dr. Grossman, none took the step he did.

“For him to take that [political] risk was pretty courageous,” he says. “The word that captures it for me is `leadership'.”

Arnie Elzey also thinks Dr. Grossman was courageous.

Mr. Elzey, owner of Arnie's Eating and Drinking Saloon in West Toledo, was the most vocal critic of the smoking ban and led the fight against it. He's known Dr. Grossman for years. In fact, Dr. Grossman was the physician for his father and mother.

“My family thought very highly of him,” Mr. Elzey says. While he wouldn't go so far as to call Dr. Grossman a friend, he says the smoking debate never got personal.

“He had a job to do, and I had a job to do,” Mr. Elzey recalls. The doctor “happened to be on the wrong side.”

“We've always gotten along pretty well,” he adds, “and I expect to in the future.”

Looking back, Dr. Grossman says he doesn't regret pushing for the ban and still believes he was right. He didn't spend much time licking his wounds.

Instead, he moved on to another public safety battle: Now he's pushing city councils in Lucas County to pass bicycle helmet laws.

What's with this guy, many people ask. Or more precisely, who is this guy?

David Grossman doesn't look like the kind of guy who would try to take someone's cigarettes away.

He's 5 feet, 10 inches tall, weighs 160 pounds, and when he forgets to get a haircut - as he often does - his bushy gray hair makes him look kind of like an older version of comedian Howie Mandel.

Dr. Grossman admittedly flew under the radar screen of many in the general public for years, enjoying the low profile he had.

“I don't think I'm much of a gadfly, but if I feel something is right, then I'll speak out. And [smoking] was the right thing.”

Dr. Grossman has been in Toledo since 1971, when he came to the Medical College of Ohio for medical school.

After graduating from MCO in 1974, he and some fellow residents set up a practice that did well for many years. In fact, he still practices with two of those original partners. Today, they and another physician and nurse practitioner work out of a modern office at 4640 West Alexis Rd.

Not bad for a kid from Youngstown who spent summers working in a steel mill, using a sledgehammer to stamp numbers in hot tubes of steel pipe.

His father owned a junkyard that had been started by his maternal grandfather, a Hungarian immigrant. His paternal grandfather came over from Romania and was a barber and small grocer.

Growing up was comfortable, but definitely not lavish, Dr. Grossman recalls.

“Blue collar was a step up,” he says.

Still, there was never any doubt in the Grossman household what David and his two brothers and one sister would do after high school.

“We were told, `You're going to college.' We had no choice. There was no question we were going,” he says.

He graduated from Miami of Ohio with a degree in chemistry, but says it was weekends with some physicians in high school that convinced him medicine was for him..

The first few months of the merger “were awful” because of the fights over who got to control what, Dr. Grossman recalls, but things finally settled down. It appeared the department would continue along with routine - even boring - tasks such as approving sewer permits or restaurant inspections.

But by the late summer of 2000, Dr. Grossman decided to pursue a no-smoking ban.

“I wanted us to have some issues. They had done it in California, and I said, `Why not us?'”

While some assumed it was some sort of personal battle evolving from the experience of treating one of his sick lung cancer patients, he says it wasn't anything that dramatic. It was just time.

Like many doctors, he was aware of the mounting evidence about secondhand smoke's harmful effects. He assumed his colleagues would rally behind him when he made his announcement, but most local physicians remained silent.

Back in his private practice office, Dr. Grossman is finishing up for the morning after five hours and 13 patients. It's noon, and he's got to be at MCO in 15 minutes to give medical students a lecture on tuberculosis.

He hurries in to his messy cubicle. Papers, files, and stacks of magazines litter his desk area. A photo of '70s Elvis - with Dr. Grossman's face where Elvis' should be - is on his desk, a gift from a patient he teased one too many times about her love of The King. He grabs his sport coat and tie and rushes to his car, a sporty new Honda S2000. He arrives a few minutes late at MCO and hurries through the hallways, his tie blowing over his shoulder.

That he's even wearing a tie is quite an accomplishment. He frowns upon ties and fancy clothes, and his wardrobe shows it, according to friends.

“Someone should keep him from picking out his own clothes,” Mr. Brochin says.

More recently, Dr. Grossman has gotten in more hot water.

This time it's smallpox, a deadly disease that experts fear terrorists could use as a bio-weapon. For months, national and state health officials have been quietly telling local authorities across the country that plans on who to vaccinate against smallpox will be coming soon. While nothing official has come out, Dr. Grossman has briefed local health board members - and the media - about plans.

“I feel it's right to be open,” he says, although some counterparts at the local and state level wish he'd shut up until more details were available.

But Dr. Grossman says the public has a right to know what's being planned. When asked if the public should be aware of anything else, or whether he wants to ban something else, he just laughs.

“Not at this point,” he says.

How about a good doctor joke? He thinks a moment and offers this:

“A man goes to the doctor and says, `Doc, I hurt my arm in three places'. Well, then don't go to those places,' the doctor says.”

Or how about this one:

“I went to the doctor, and he put his hand on my wallet and told me to cough.”

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