NEW YORK — TOBACCO smoke is now officially considered in the same category as benzene, mustard gas, arsenic, and asbestos.
William Reilly, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is scheduled today to release a report that concludes that secondhand cigarette smoke is a class A carcinogen, or cancer-causing substance. The EPA, which worked on the report for four years, is the first government agency to designate Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) as a known carcinogen. Other government reports have said ETS is a suspected carcinogen.
Anti-smoking groups hope the EPA report, entitled "Respiratory Health Effects of Passive Smoking," will have a greater impact than earlier reports about the dangers of smoking. "We're looking forward to a lot of action at the state houses, where, hopefully, states will expand indoor-air-pollution laws or put them on the books," says Fran Du Melle, deputy managing director of the American Lung Association.
EPA officials say they believe the report may result in smoking prohibitions in the workplace as businesses try to avoid future liability lawsuits. The report could also affect insurance coverage for companies that allow smoking.
A draft of the EPA report circulated in May estimated that about 63 million United States nonsmokers, aged 18 or above, involuntarily inhale tobacco smoke. The final report estimates there are about 3,000 nonsmoker deaths per year attributable to cigarette smoke. The main sources were studies on the health effects of smoking on nonsmoking spouses, cohorts, or children.
The final report will provide anti-smoking groups with ammunition to press for clean-indoor-air legislation, which would include a ban on smoking in the workplace. In fact, the Coalition on Smoking OR Health held a press conference yesterday and included such a ban as part of the agenda it will recommend to Congress and President-elect Clinton.
THE Tobacco Institute, the lobbying arm of the industry, attacked the methodology of the report in an attempt to discredit the conclusions. Philip Morris Inc. and the institute yesterday briefed reporters on their objections to the report. "This has been a report which has been criticized by a number of scientists in a number of disciplines," says Brennan Dawson, a spokeswoman for the tobacco group. The EPA had no comment before the report was issued.
Anti-smoking groups expect the report to have the greatest impact at the state level, where it is somewhat easier and faster to get legislation through. A major target will be areas where children and smokers share the same space, such as day-care centers.
The EPA draft report concludes that environmental tobacco smoke places young children at risk of contracting a variety of lower-respiratory infections. The EPA draft estimated tobacco smoke results in the yearly hospitalization of 7,500 to 15,000 infants and children under the age of 18 months.
For Jeff Wagener, the effects of smoking on children are more than a statistic. Dr. Wagener, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado and a doctor at the university's Children's Hospital in Denver, says he sees children whose health problems correlate to environmental tobacco smoke.
The first group is babies whose mothers smoke. These babies reportedly are born with smaller lungs than normal babies. If parents continue to smoke after the child is born, Wagener says the likelihood of the child having respiratory problems increases by 2 to 10 times.
"A study in Tucson [Ariz.] found that if the mother smokes, the child does better in a nonsmoking day care [center] than staying at home with the smoking mother," Wagener says. And, finally, Wagener sees young infants diagnosed with asthma. "Nearly 50 percent of the children with asthma have parents who smoke," he says. The EPA report only concluded that smoking exacerbates asthma symptoms.