A Good Guy at AMA Dies: Dr. Ron Davis, Tobacco Foe

12/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I first met Ron Davis in 1981. I was the new medical reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was a medical student at the University of Chicago, who hoped to turn the Chicago-based American Medical Association into an anti-tobacco group.

I had just broken a story for the Sun-Times on how the AMA Physician Retirement Fund had a major investment in Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. The AMA stood by its investment, which after all was meant to make money and not make a social statement. Davis and a precious few other physicians saw the disconnect: Here was a group claiming to protect the public health, while at the same time aiming to profit from tobacco stock.

But Ron Davis was a visionary and true agent for change who saw the big picture and the path to get there. Instead of becoming a bomb thrower outside, Davis joined the establishment and aimed to make changes from within. He would go on to be elected to the AMA Board and eventually would be elected its president. During his term as president, Davis was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Davis, 52, immediate past president of the Chicago-based American Medical Association, died Thursday.

Dr. Alan Blum, a long-time critic of the AMA's policies on tobacco, recalled to me Friday: "Ron was one of the few good guys at the AMA."

I would agree. As the years went on and the tobacco issue continued to embarrass the AMA, Davis moved up in the organization. He became the first resident physician to serve on the AMA board. He helped me on occasion as my eyes and ears inside the AMA boardroom.

When a series of stories Tom Brune and I for the Sun-Times led to the resignation o the AMA's CEO in a financial scandal in 1990, Davis called to congratulate me "if that's appropriate."

When Brune and I were writing, The Serpent on the Staff: The Unhealthy Politics of the American Meedical Association (Putnam, 1995), Davis shared his files on the AMA involvement on tobacco issues. He was a tireless researcher, who must have pored over every newspaper index over the past half century to dig up the dirt an organization that he clearly loved and wanted to do better on tobacco and other issues. I was grateful when Davis reviewed the draft of the book chapter--Smoking Gun--covering the AMA and tobacco.

A little background: The AMA had a disgraceful history on tobacco. When the U.S. Surgeon first warned about the dangers of tobacco in 1964, the AMA climbed into bed with the industry and in essence took hush money. Thanks to the payments to the AMA, the industry for years could claim that the ultimate risks tobacco posed to health were still being investigated by the AMA, no less.

Davis helped turned the AMA around on tobacco, though I know some feel the AMA to this day hasn't done enough.

The AMA may have kept Davis busy, but this preventive health specialist held down regular jobs. He served as medical director for the Michigan Department of Public Health and director of the Centers for Disease Control's Office on Smoking and Health. He received the Surgeon General's Medallion, and most recently the American Public Health Association's 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award. Davis led the AMA when it made an historic 2008 apology to African-American physicians for playing a role in racism in this country.

The AMA ought to apologize for the harm it caused the public health for its collaboration with the tobacco industry. It would be a fitting tribute to the legacy of Dr. Ronald Davis.