Environmental Tobacco Smoke

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS), is the tobacco industry's name for secondhand tobacco smoke, the combination of smoke that comes off the burning end of a cigarette ("sidestream smoke") and the smoke exhaled by smokers ("exhaled mainstream smoke").

In 1993 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared ETS Group A Human Carcinogen, meaning that the total weight of the existing evidence was enough to scientifically conclude that ETS caused cancer in humans. EPA uses the "Group A" designation for only 15 other substances, including asbestos, radon gas and benzene. [1]

Increasing public concern over the heath hazards posed by ETS, and a subsequent decline in the social acceptability of smoking and hence cigarette sales starting in the late 1970s stimulated the tobacco industry to engage in massive, decades-long PR efforts to preserve public confusion and "maintain the controversy" about the disease-causing aspects of tobacco smoke.

The industry implemented a host of organized, multi-company efforts like the Tobacco Institute's Scientific Witness Program, the multinational ETS Consultants Project (also known as the Whitecoat Project, after the white coats scientists wear), the Latin Project as well as individual company efforts like Philip Morris' Operation Downunder, Operation Rainmaker, the Accommodation Program and others.

Tobacco industry documents on the ETS issue

Industry documents reveal the scope of the tobacco industry's efforts to address ETS issues globally.

A 1990 fax from the law firm of Shook, Hardy and Bacon reveals a plan by tobacco companies around the world to coordinate to fight public health efforts to control secondhand tobacco smoke globally. The document laments that "ETS [environmental tobacco smoke] represents a more serious threat to the industry than any other issue" and that "time is running out...and... the industry is on the point of losing the issue." It shows efforts to "gain overall industry commitment to the principle of global action" and to "coordinate approved global activities" to fight public health on this issue. The "measurable benefits" of a "'global' ETS campaign" included "the blocking of social legislation/regulation" and "protection of smokers from unreasonable social pressures." These benefits were to be achieved by "forcing anti-smoking groups onto the defensive" and "industry alternatives for public smoking policies being given a greater chance of being recognized and developed." The first phase of a major, coordinated worldwide campaign was proposed to take place in direct opposition to a major public health effort against tobacco, around "31 May 1999 (WHO World No Tobacco Day)."[1]

Another report, estimated date circa 1993, found in the files of Victor Han (Director of Communications for Philip Morris Worldwide Regulatory Affairs) describes the threat that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) 1993 rating of environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) as a Group A Human Carcinogen posed to the cigarette industry:

Indirectly, ETS will have considerable influence on all other tobacco-related legislation, including taxation, marketing freedoms, etc. Of critical importance will be the effect on consumers, practically deprivd of more and more locations in which they can smoke, and psychologically given more incentive to quit."

The Philip Morris report characterizes the EPA as "at worst corrupt and controlled by environmental terrorists" and states that

... without an effort to build considerable reasonable doubt about [EPA's case against secondhand smoke]--particularly among consumers--then virtually all other efforts [to fight the ETS issue] will be diminished in effectiveness.

PM's strategy is laid out in the document: not to fight the ETS issue on its merits, but instead to destroy the credibility of the government agency that declared it dangerous:

"The credibility of the EPA is defeatable, but not on the basis of ETS alone. It must be part of a larger mosaic that concentrates all of the EPA's enemies against it at one time."

The paper describes how the media's focus would be taken off of ETS by the generation of non-ETS stories, stories that focus on "general EPA bashing by credible, authoritative sources." and "EPA ineptitude and, when possible, corruption."[2]

ETS and Flight Attendants

Until bans on in-flight smoking took effect beginning in 1988, flight attendants were a group of workers who were regularly exposed to high concentrations of secondhand smoke in the enclosed spaces of their workplaces. As a result, in 1997, 60,000 flight attendants suffering from cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, sinusitis and other smoking-related illnesses sued the tobacco industry for $5 billion, alleging that they had contracted the diseases from years of flying on airplanes before smoking was banned. The class action was led by lead plaintiff Norma Broin. The attorneys bringing the case were Stanley M. Rosenblatt and his wife, Susan Rosenblatt.

The tobacco companies named in the suit were Philip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson Tobacco, Lorillard Tobacco Co., the Liggett Group, the Council for Tobacco Research and Tobacco Institute. The defendant tobacco companies claimed that the plaintiffs' illnesses were not caused by second-hand smoke, that their illnesses could not be decisively linked to second-hand smoke, and that the companies were unaware aware of any dangers of second-hand smoke before the smoking ban on airplanes.[2]

The lawsuit ended in a settlement of $349 million, of which $300 million went to create the Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute (FAMRI), whose purpose is to study the early detection, prevention, treatment and cure of diseases and medical conditions caused from exposure to tobacco smoke.[3].

Sourcewatch Resources

External Resources


  1. Shook, Hardy & Bacon Agenda Item 8 Environmental Tobacco Smoke Report. 3 pp. November 6, 1990
  2. Philip Morris ETS Media Strategy Report/Outline. February, 1993 (est.) Bates No. 2023920035/0101

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