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Secondhand Smoke Causes Over 3,000 Lung Cancer Deaths and 35,000 Heart Attacks Per Year

Tobacco Industry Attempted to Influence Media Reports on Secondhand Smoke

ROCHESTER, MN -- September 2, 2004 -- Newly uncovered tobacco industry documents reveal how cigarette manufacturers tried to influence media reports about secondhand smoke (Prev Med. 2004 Sep; 39(3): 568-80). According to a recent study, the companies recruited teams of journalists to write news articles that undermined the Environmental Protection Agency's warnings about secondhand smoke and supported the tobacco industry's position.

Working on behalf of Philip Morris, a public relations firm suggested building doubt about an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on secondhand smoke. Besides concentrating on "one-on-one opportunities with journalists," the firm recommended "carefully tailored, authored, placed pieces" questioning the competence of the EPA.

A political consultant, Richard Hines, helped carry out what Philip Morris referred to as "EPA bashing," the study said. Mr. Hines had been a state legislator in the South Carolina House of Representatives and held several executive positions in the Reagan administration. He later assisted in George Bush's 2000 presidential campaign.

The study concluded that Mr. Hines, through a network of journalists, was responsible for articles downplaying the health problems caused by secondhand smoke. "[W]e have been able to get favorable articles/commentaries in major publications...and reach millions of the public through numerous syndicated columnists that are in our network," he bragged in a letter to Philip Morris executives.

Journalists associated with think tanks that were financially supported by Philip Morris also wrote numerous stories critical of the EPA. In addition, Philip Morris stands accused of increasing its power by providing financial support to a school of journalism, the National Journalism Center, and planning biased educational programs.

"I am no longer shocked at the extensive reach of the tobacco industry...but I am quite surprised that parts of the institution we call journalism can be so swayed to purposely mislead their readers on such an important public health issue as secondhand smoke," said Dr. Richard Hurt, a Mayo Clinic researcher and co-author of the study (Mayo Clinic, Press Release, August 23, 2004). The authors went on to lament "...even journalists can fall victim to well-orchestrated and presented public relations efforts regardless of their scientific validity. Certainly, on the topic of the health effects of secondhand smoke, more scrutiny is warranted ...lest the public be misinformed and thus ill served."

The Dangers of Secondhand Smoke

The EPA report, which was approved in 1992, classified secondhand smoke as a carcinogen. Nine years later, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) also reached that conclusion. The National Institute of Health specifically links secondhand smoke to lung cancer (Health Effects of Exposure to Environmental Tobacco Smoke). There is a dose-response relationship between lung cancer risk and the duration of exposure to secondhand smoke for spousal, workplace and social exposure, according to a recent study.

Among adults in the U.S., over 3,000 lung cancer deaths and 35,000 deaths from heart disease occur each year due to secondhand smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control or CDC (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2002; 51(14): 300-303). Because their lungs are not fully developed, children are also very susceptible to secondhand smoke. On an annual basis, secondhand smoke is responsible for about 8,000-26,000 new asthma cases in children. Infants less than 18 months have 150,000-300,000 new cases of bronchitis and pneumonia because of such exposure. Secondhand smoke is associated with low birth weight and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in infants, and middle ear infections in children.

What's In Secondhand Smoke?

Also known as environmental tobacco smoke, secondhand smoke is a mixture of the smoke exhaled by smokers (mainstream smoke) as well as the fumes given off by cigarettes, cigars, and pipes (side stream smoke). Composed of over 3,000 chemicals, both side stream and mainstream tobacco smoke contain at least 60 carcinogens, including formaldehyde, and six developmental toxic substances, including nicotine and carbon monoxide (Environmental Tobacco Smoke, National Cancer Institute). Formaldehyde is a chemical used in manufacturing industries and as a preservative by embalmers and pathologists. Exposure to formaldehyde has been linked to leukemia and brain cancer. Nicotine, carbon monoxide, and other cigarette tar ingredients are among the substances that have been implicated in lung cancer.

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