WEDNESDAY, April 14, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Researchers sifting through thousands of pages of tobacco industry documents say they have unearthed evidence of tactics the industry used to try and derail a landmark government report that declared secondhand smoke to be a killer.
The report, the first comprehensive risk assessment of the health issue, determined secondhand smoke was a Group A carcinogen that caused about 3,000 lung cancer deaths each year in nonsmokers. Although it was released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1992, it suffered under a cloud of doubt cast by a series of stalling strategies for a decade, say the authors of an article in the current issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The report's findings were a key catalyst for the current widespread ban on indoor smoking, the "beginning of a major movement across the country and now across the world," said article co-author Dr. Richard D. Hurt, director of the Mayo Clinic's Nicotine Dependence Center. "This was about the bottom line for [tobacco companies."
But, he charged, "the delay cost people their lives."
Jennifer Golisch, a spokeswoman for Philip Morris USA, would not comment on the specific documents referenced in the article because she had not seen them. And she refused comment on Hurt's charge.
However, she added, "Philip Morris USA believes that the public should be guided by the conclusions of public health officials regarding the health effects of secondhand smoke. Public health officials have concluded that secondhand smoke from cigarettes causes disease. This information should guide people in deciding whether to be in places where secondhand smoke is present or, if they are smokers, when or where to smoke around others."
Hurt and his colleagues pored over once-secret internal tobacco company documents, which are now available at the Minnesota Tobacco Document Depository in Minneapolis, the British American Tobacco (BAT) Document Depository in London and the online Tobacco Control Archives at the University of California, San Francisco. At the Minnesota Depository alone, the authors searched more than 2,000 boxes, each with 2,500 pages, from April 1998 and February 2002.
Although they mention RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co., the authors focus much of the article on one file found at the Minnesota Depository entitled "SCP Miles presentation." The reference is to Steve C. Parrish, vice president and general counsel of Philip Morris and Mike Miles, former chief executive officer of the company. And the presentation outlined various strategies related to the EPA document, the authors said.
According to the authors, the tobacco industry documents also showed:
- The overall attempt to delay or prevent the release of the EPA risk assessment was referred to within Philip Morris as a "Sand in the Gears" approach, a term used in a June 24, 1992, presentation to the company's board of directors.
- The industry in 1992 tried to prevent the risk assessment from going to the Science Advisory Board, which advises the agency on technical matters and without whose review it couldn't be released.
- The industry tried, again in 1992, to get the White House to approve a new executive order that would impose new standards for risk assessments so the EPA would not be able to release the report as it stood.
- The industry tried to get the jurisdiction for secondhand smoke transferred from the EPA to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which would have made the risk assessment a non-issue, the authors said.
- The industry enlisted members of Congress to intervene on its behalf. Congressman Thomas Bliley Jr. (R-Va), for instance, wrote at least 11 letters to EPA Administrator William Reilly suggesting the EPA's science and procedures were flawed, and he wrote other letters to EPA staff members and to the National Cancer Institute. In September 1992, Congressman John Dingell (D-MI), then chairman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, joined Bliley in asking EPA Inspector General John Martin to investigate one EPA subcontracting procedure involving a workplace smoking guide.
- The industry sued the EPA in federal court in 1995 and convinced the judge to "nullify" the risk assessment. "The tobacco industry used the court order for public relations," Hurt said. "It would counter any public pronouncements that secondhand smoke was a Group A carcinogen with this ruling."
Some strategies were more successful than others, the authors noted. The federal lawsuit, for instance, succeeded in delaying the release of the report for an additional seven years. At the end of 2002, however, an appeals court in Richmond, Va., overturned that decision, and Philip Morris withdrew from the suit.
The decade of delays has had enduring effects, Hurt added.
"The tobacco industry's maneuvers cast doubt on the document and damaged public confidence," he said. What's more, "the smoke-free workplace movement was not as quick or as widespread as it might otherwise have been. The industry wanted to bury the EPA document and, at the very least, slow it down with sand in the gears."
The revelations of the new research are not the first time the tobacco industry has been accused of heavy-handedness when pursuing its own agenda. Other allegations in recent years charged that it tried to cast doubt on a study that linked secondhand smoke and cancer and it ignored warnings that cigarette filters could release harmful substances.
"This is just one segment of an enormous PR campaign," Hurt said. "People need to understand that a lot of rhetoric has been made up, fabricated by the tobacco industry. This clearly demonstrates the lengths to which this industry will go to fight something that is clearly in the interest of the public health."