U.S. EPA released a report earlier this month declaring that second-
hand tobacco smoke is a Class A carcinogen, meaning the agency is
convinced it causes cancer in humans. (Second-hand smoke is also called
environmental tobacco smoke, involuntary smoking and passive smoking.)
EPA says exposure to such smoke kills about 3000 Americans each year by
lung cancer. The agency says second-hand smoke also:
** Increases the severity of asthma in somewhere between 200,000 and
one million American children each year;
** Causes 150,000 to 300,000 cases of respiratory infections like
bronchitis and pneumonia in children in the U.S. each year;
** Causes fluid buildup in the middle ear, a condition that can lead to
ear infections in children;
** Gives spouses of those who smoke at home a 2-in-1000 chance of
getting cancer. (NY TIMES 1/8/93, pg. A14)1
According to physicians with the American Heart Association, the
situation is somewhat worse than EPA is letting on:
** About 50 million nonsmoking adults over the age of 35 are
involuntarily exposed to secondary smoke each year in the U.S.;
** Half of all American children live in families with one or more
These people have a 30% greater chance of developing heart disease,
lung cancer, or other respiratory illnesses than do people who avoid
frequent exposure to smoke;
Second-hand smoke may contribute to as many as 40,000 deaths each year
from heart disease. (NY TIMES 1/11/92 pg. A20)
* * *
The recent history of tobacco offers a lens through which we can
observe how we got ourselves where we are today, not just with tobacco
but with all toxic chemicals.
** The Surgeon General of the U.S. declared smoking cigarettes a cause
of lung cancer in 1964. By that time people had been calling cigarettes
"coffin nails" for many decades, so the Surgeon General in 1964 was
merely confirming what most people already knew. The tobacco companies
CERTAINLY knew it before 1964.
** The Surgeon General of the U.S. in his 1988 annual report on smoking
declared that nicotine--the main psychoactive ingredient in tobacco--is
as addictive as heroin. (NY TIMES 5/17/88, pgs. 1, C4)
** A survey of 77 scientists whose research is supported by the Council
for Tobacco Research (created by cigarette manufacturers in 1954)
revealed that 98% of them believe tobacco is addictive.
The same survey revealed that 91% of the 77 researchers believe that
most deaths from lung cancer are caused by tobacco smoke. The
scientists who conducted the survey (which was published in the
AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH in June 1991) concluded that the
tobacco industry does not act on the research it finances. (NY TIMES
9/24/91, pg. C3.)
** A physician's study of tobacco industry practices, published in the
medical JOURNAL OF FAMILY PRACTICE in August 1992, concluded that the
Tobacco Institute's program called "Tobacco: Helping Youth Say No" is
"clearly designed to encourage tobacco use" among children by
portraying smoking as an adult activity and therefore a "forbidden
fruit" for children. (NY TIMES 9/2/92, pg. D18)
** A study of 2256 children ages 4 to 11, published in the September,
1992, issue of the medical journal PEDIATRICS, showed that children of
mothers who smoke are twice as likely to have behavior problems,
compared to children of mothers who don't smoke. Behavior problems
include conflicts with peers, immaturity and a tendency to be
antisocial, anxious, depressed, headstrong, or hyperactive.
Commenting on this study, Dr. Loraine Stern, an associate professor of
pediatrics at the University of California at Los Angeles, said she
wasn't surprised by the results. "There are thousands of toxins in
cigarette smoke," any one of which could affect behavior in children,
she said. (NY TIMES 9/8/92, pg. C9)
** Since 1954, citizens have brought more than 300 lawsuits against
tobacco companies, claiming the companies misled them by advertising
the pleasures and benefits of tobacco while withholding medical
information about its dangers. No plaintiff has ever collected a cent
by suing a tobacco company for health problems.
** Five of the nation's six tobacco companies--all except Liggett--have
been represented by a single law firm, Shook, Hardy & Bacon of Kansas
City, Missouri. The 175-lawyer firm has about 35 attorneys defending
tobacco companies, plus "scores of researchers, biochemists,
veterinarians, nurses and other experts, along with technological
support of commensurate sophistication," according to a recent report
in the NEW YORK TIMES (11/20/92, pgs. A1, B16).
"In the best Philip Morris tradition, Shook, Hardy engages in
conspicuous charity, sponsoring bowl-a-thons for the Big Brothers and
Big Sisters of Kansas City, ringing Christmas bells for the Salvation
Army, marching for the March of Dimes," the report said.
In 1992, H. Lee Sarokin, a federal judge in Newark, N.J., "accused
tobacco lawyers of participating in what he called a conspiracy to
conceal smoking's dangers from the American public." The judge said the
tobacco industry "may be the king of concealment and disinformation."
** Shook, Hardy initially opposed the law that requires cigarette
packages and cigarette ads to carry a Surgeon General's warning. Then
they turned the labels into an advantage, winning cases by claiming
that the labeling law "pre-empted" lawsuits against tobacco companies.
However, on June 24, 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this
defense was not valid. The court thus opened the way for lawsuits
claiming that tobacco companies concealed facts about the dangers of
smoking, or claiming that, by actually lying about damaging information
in their possession, tobacco companies breached a legal duty not to
deceive. (NY TIMES 6/25/92, pgs. A1, B10)
** The NEW YORK TIMES reports that attorneys for the tobacco industry
offer various excuses for their work: every client is entitled to
counsel; or, the dangers of smoking have not been proven; or, smokers
don't have to smoke (they're not really addicted); or the work they do
is no more ethically suspect than the work of other attorneys. Or they
take refuge in cynicism: a poster in one office at Shook, Hardy says,
"Smoking is the nation's leading cause of statistics."
And some statistics they are:
Cigarette smoking causes about 435,000 deaths each year in the U.S.,
including 200,000 from cardiovascular disease, 100,000 from lung
cancer, and 80,000 from chronic lung disease. (NY TIMES 1/11/92 pg.
A20). Thus during the 40 years that Americans have spent pursuing the
tobacco companies fruitlessly in court, roughly 17 million Americans
have been killed by tobacco smoke while the tobacco companies pocketed
something like a thousand billion dollars.
* * *
What have we learned about toxic chemicals from this review of tobacco?
** Ordinary citizens knew long before the scientific and medical
community that smoking was harmful.
** Subtle damage--like hostile behavior in children, or depression, or
hyperactivity, can be caused by "any one of thousands" of toxic
** The courts have not provided justice for the addicted victims of
tobacco, or for their innocent families. Even when a federal judge
learns so much that he feels compelled to accuse the poisoners and
their lawyers of "concealment and disinformation," the courts cannot
** The poisoners have a trained army of lawyers, researchers,
physicians, nurses, and veterinarians who make a fat living helping
others evade liability.
** The poisoners routinely engage in conspicuous philanthropy and acts
** The poisoners have no difficulty sleeping at night. Mere questions
of right and wrong do not trouble them.
** For all its vaunted size and power, the United States of America is
unable to protect its citizens from an organized assault on health and
pocketbook by predatory corporations.
* * *
When the EPA report on second-hand smoke was released, Dr. Louis W.
Sullivan, head of the federal Department of Health and Human Services,
said, "It is irresponsible for smokers to expose young children to the
health consequences of their addiction." (No one asked, "What about
exposing children to pesticides, solvents and other industrial poisons
in their food and water?")
After the press conference, most U.S. newspapers called for a ban on
smoking in public buildings, in workplaces, and in any setting where
innocent people may be exposed. But the NEW YORK TIMES went further,
asserting (in an editorial titled "No Right to Cause Death"), "No one
would grant his neighbor the right to blow tiny amounts of asbestos
into a room or sprinkle traces of pesticide onto food. By the same
logic, smokers have no right to spew even more noxious clouds into the
air around them." (1/10/93, pg. E22)
But that is precisely the right that corporations claim when they allow
industrial poisons to spread into our food and water. Both Dr. Sullivan
and the TIMES denied that polluters have a RIGHT to pollute. Logically,
this leads to a demand for zero discharge.
No one has the RIGHT to poison our neighborhoods or our common air and
water. If the legislatures and the courts cannot protect us against
corporate poisoners, then we should take this as clear evidence that
corporations have become too powerful. Corporations themselves must
become the focus of our energies and our attention. The TIMES is right:
zero discharge IS the right goal. And reducing the power of corporate
poisoners--perhaps by amending the corporate charter--would be one way
to achieve it.
 The new EPA report, RESPIRATORY HEALTH EFFECTS OF PASSIVE SMOKING:
LUNG CANCER AND OTHER DISORDERS [EPA/600/6-90/006F] is available free
from: CERI, U.S. EPA, 26 West Martin Luther King Dr., Cincinnati, OH
45268; or phone (513) 569-7562.
Descriptor terms: epa; second hand smoke; carcinogens; cancer; lung
cancer; asthma; lung disease; heart disease; tobacco industry; council
for tobacco research; advertising; bans; zero discharge;