A Raw Deal for Secondhand Smoke

D. Muska

Last October the Nevada Casino Dealers Association (NCDA) filed a lawsuit against 17 tobacco companies and organizations. Claiming that casino dealers are "particularly vulnerable" to "the dangers of secondhand smoke," the NCDA filed its suit in Reno federal court on behalf of nine dealers. Since then, separate lawsuits have been filed by individual dealers making similar claims. But a ruling last month by U.S. District Judge William Osteen may take much of the wind out of the sails of the NCDA lawsuit, as well as other attempts to attack the tobacco industry for the alleged health effects of secondhand smoke. On July 17, Osteen found that the Environmental Protection Agency dishonestly linked secondhand smoke to cancer in its landmark report on the issue in 1993. Herewith, a look at the little-known facts about "dangers" of secondhand smoke, and the weak science upon which secondhand smoke lawsuits are based.

The Secondhand Smoke Crusade

Claims that secondhand smoke causes lung cancer were made long before the EPA voiced its approval of the hypothesis in 1993. In his new book For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health, Jacob Sullum writes that chemists with the EPA and the Naval Research Laboratory concluded in 1980 that "tobacco smoke presents a serious risk to the health of nonsmokers." Over the next few years, several more studies were conducted, with conflicting conclusions. But campaigns against environmental tobacco smoke (ETS)—the technical term for secondhand smoke—were boosted by the surgeon general and the National Research Council, in two reports issued in 1986. By the mid-1990s, dozens more studies examined the possible links between ETS and various illnesses. The results were not conclusive. But notwithstanding weak scientific support for their cause, anti-smoking extremists found enough factoids to fuel their campaigns. Aided by a sympathetic media, a consensus took shape: Secondhand smoke doesn’t just annoy nonsmokers, it could kill them. As The Weekly Standard’s Jay Nordlinger observed, even "Dear Abby" toed the line, telling her readers "one non-smoker dies of secondhand smoke for every eight smokers."

Jumping on the Ban Wagon

"By the end of 1985," writes Sullum, "more than a hundred municipalities had adopted smoking ordinances." In 1987, one poll showed that 81 percent of Americans believed that ETS was dangerous to nonsmokers and 55 percent supported a complete ban on smoking in public places. In that year—partly due to suspicions about secondhand smoke—Congress passed and President Reagan signed a ban on smoking on all domestic flights under two hours. In 1990, Congress and President Bush extended the ban to domestic flights of any length. Restrictions and bans on smoking intensified, and it was not long before cities, counties and states imposed smoking ordinances covering 20 percent of the population. All this despite the fact that, as the Competitive Enterprise Institute has noted, "Workplaces and restaurants are private spaces, operated and voluntarily utilized by individuals who are capable of making their own mutual arrangements regarding smoking policies."

EPA: Environmental Propaganda Agency

With secondhand smoke successfully demonized by the early 1990s—and smoking bans advancing without significant opposition—it’s hard to see why the EPA saw the need to cook the books in order to give ETS further bad press. But in January 1993, the agency published a report listing ETS as a "known human carcinogen" that accounted for as many as 3,000 cases of lung cancer each year. The tobacco industry immediately sued the EPA, claiming the agency had made up its mind about ETS before it even began its study. (Which was not original research at all, but rather a "meta-analysis" of preexisting studies.) While the industry’s lawsuit worked its way through the courts, two independent critics of the EPA’s findings made their doubts known. Science magazine called the agency on the carpet for "fancy statistical footwork" and the Congressional Research Service concluded that the EPA’s case was weak.

Undeterred by skeptics, anti-tobacco activists pressed forward with their war on ETS. In Sullum’s words, the linkage between ETS and serious illness "dovetails so well with the goal of discouraging smoking that tobacco’s opponents generally have not been inclined to scrutinize it very closely." In July, five years after the EPA issued its report, Osteen confirmed that the agency had indeed placed politics before science, employing statistical trickery to "establish a de facto regulatory scheme" to restrict tobacco use and "influence public opinion."

"Using its normal methodology," the judge wrote, " … EPA did not demonstrate a statistically significant association between ETS and lung cancer …. Instead, EPA changed its methodology to find a statistically significant association." Yet even fudging the numbers in its favor didn’t yield results for the EPA that proved a strong link between lung cancer at ETS. Even though it manipulated the data, editorialized Investor’s Business Daily, "the Environmental Protection Agency still found that the relative risk associated with ETS and lung cancer is 1.19—far below the accepted minimal standard of 3 to 4. For comparison, the relative risk of premature death associated with drinking three cups of coffee per week is 1.3. Drinking whole milk and lung cancer? 2.4."

ETS hysteria has suffered another scientific setback this year. In March, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a study of smokers and nonsmokers in seven European countries. The WHO concluded that no significant link exists between secondhand smoke and lung cancer. After the WHO report was made public, British medical demographer Lorraine Mooney expressed the beliefs of many epidemiologists in the Wall Street Journal: "It is now obvious that antismoking activists have knowingly overstated the health risk of secondhand smoke."

So What About the Dealers?

It is tempting to sympathize with employees who work in smoke-filled environments, and casino dealers certainly fall into that category. But it is important to remember that "the dose makes the poison," and breathing ETS is not akin to regularly smoking cigarettes. Even if the plaintiffs in these suits were found to have higher rates of smoke-related illnesses, much more work would need to be done to prove their conditions were produced exposure to ETS. Researchers would first have to consider "the Nevada factor"—the Silver State is one of the unhealthiest in the union. (Last year Nevada ranked 47th in the ReliaStar Financial Corporation’s annual state health rankings.) Only three states have higher percentages of binge drinkers than Nevada, and in April the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study which showed Nevadans report the fewest "healthy" days per month. The household income of casino dealers with ETS claims would have to be included in any scientifically credible study as well, since wealth is a strong determinant of health. And the dealers’ own smoking histories would be vital. Two NCDA officers participating in the litigation, Tony Badillo and Robert Murphy, admit to being smokers in the past, but still have had the audacity to sue the tobacco industry based on their exposure to ETS. "It’s been proven that secondhand smoke is bad for your healthy," Badillo erroneously told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.


Judge Osteen’s decision is sure to have little effect on the smoking bans already in place. But it could do much to combat the flimsy science of those who claim secondhand smoke is a carcinogen. It might also be a powerful tool to defeat baseless lawsuits like the ones brought by individual casino dealers and the NCDA. Despite the rhetoric of the anti-tobacco industry, science does not back up the ETS scare campaign.

D. Dowd Muska, a non-smoker, is a contributing editor for Nevada Journal, the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s monthly magazine. He can be contacted at ddm@npri.org.