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WASHINGTON -- This dispute of whether or not secondhand smoke can cause cancer has emerged as a crucial issue in the government's trial against the nation's largest tobacco companies, reported the Associated Press.
The trial, which comes six years after the states reached settlements worth $246 billion with the industry to recoup the cost of treating sick smokers, is in its third month in U.S. District Court in Washington and probably will continue for several more.
The Justice Department alleges the industry engaged in a five-decade-long conspiracy to deceive the public about the health hazards of cigarettes. To win, the government must show the industry still is acting fraudulently or is likely to do so in the future. Proving the industry is misleading the public about secondhand smoke could be an essential element.
"It's probably the best evidence available that the tobacco industry hasn't truly, fundamentally reformed," said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Government lawyers say the industry's denials about secondhand smoke are reminiscent of the companies' decades-old assertion that smoking did not cause cancer. That stand was dropped only in the past five years, against overwhelming evidence.
Tobacco manufacturers say evidence tying secondhand smoke to lung cancer is much weaker. "We think there's a legitimate reason to believe that this is not a done deal scientifically. It is not a closed case by any means," said Seth Moskowitz, a spokesman for Reynolds American Inc.
Government lawyers, who refused to speak publicly about the case outside of court, have argued in filings and before Judge Gladys Kessler that the industry has tried to create a controversy about secondhand smoke where none exists.
Tobacco company lawyers disagree. "Statistically, the evidence isn't strong enough," said Dan Webb, a lawyer for the leading cigarette manufacturer, Philip Morris USA.
Numerous studies in the United States and elsewhere show that nonsmokers who are married to smokers, or who work with them, have about a 20 to 30 percent greater chance than other nonsmokers of contracting lung cancer. By comparison, smokers are about 20 times as likely as nonsmokers to get lung cancer.
The government estimates secondhand smoke causes 3,000 lung cancer deaths annually in nonsmokers in the United States.