Commentary: Blowing Smoke over Ventilation

By Paul Raeburn

This year is the 15th anniversary of an event that will not be celebrated by the tobacco industry: the publication of The Health Consequences of Involuntary Smoking by then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. The report solidly linked secondhand smoke to cancer and heart disease in nonsmokers, and included these words: "Separation of smokers and nonsmokers within the same airspace may reduce, but does not eliminate, exposure of nonsmokers to environmental tobacco smoke."

The report's publication was an ominous development for the tobacco industry. Smoking restrictions began appearing around the U.S. The rules, however, were effective in reducing nonsmokers' exposure to secondhand smoke. On Mar. 21, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a study that found "a dramatic reduction in exposure of the U.S. population to environmental tobacco smoke" since 1991.

FRESH BREEZE. Despite this good news, the industry has struggled to shake off the restrictions. First, it argued that the science on secondhand smoke was suspect. Then it warned that smoking restrictions would put bars and restaurants out of business. Neither argument held up, nor did they slow the trend toward restricting or banning smoking in workplaces, public spaces, restaurants, and bars.

Now the industry thinks it has a strategy that can't fail. Its centerpiece? Ventilation. "Bringing in a lot of fresh air can help reduce the concentration of secondhand smoke and provide a more comfortable environment for everyone," says Brendan McCormick, manager of media relations for Philip Morris USA. (MO ) "The comfort of the nonsmoker is what's at issue." Indeed, the company has been lobbying city councils and state legislatures to draft laws encouraging the use of ventilation as an alternative to smoking restrictions.

Public-health officials object to Philip Morris' new emphasis on "comfort." They say it obscures something much more important: the health of nonsmokers. According to the CDC in Atlanta, secondhand smoke causes 62,000 heart-disease deaths and 3,000 deaths from lung cancer in the U.S. each year.

It's true that ventilation can clear up smoky haze and odors. Nevertheless, what the Surgeon General concluded in 1986 still holds true: The technology can't eliminate health dangers. Secondhand smoke is full of thousands of chemicals, many of which increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, and respiratory ailments. And air can't be judged by its smell, since many carcinogens are odorless and invisible. The best ventilation available today "cannot conceivably control secondhand smoke to acceptable levels of risk without tornado-like levels of airflow," declares James L. Repace, a consultant on secondhand-smoke hazards and former staff scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency.

The ventilation industry itself concedes the point. Its current published standards specify that air containing secondhand smoke cannot be considered acceptable, no matter how thoroughly it is ventilated. And even Philip Morris does not argue with these conclusions. "We don't in any way address the health effects of ventilation," says Thomas M. Ryan, manager of media programs for Philip Morris.

Meanwhile, the company continues to promote the technology. For example, it has created what it calls an Options program. It encourages owners of bars, restaurants, and bowling alleys to upgrade their ventilation systems so they can accommodate both smokers and nonsmokers--without either restricting smoking or confining smokers to a separate room.

GOTHAM MYSTERY. The latest battleground is New York City, where the City Council is considering a bill that would slightly tighten smoking restrictions in restaurants. Tucked inside is a proposal to create a task force to study ventilation as an alternative to separate smoking areas in restaurants. This dovetails nicely with Philip Morris' strategy: The company won't try to argue that ventilation keeps nonsmokers healthy. But the task force--with links to Philip Morris--will raise reasonable-sounding questions about whether it's really necessary to ban or wall off smoking. And if New York goes on record supporting ventilation as an alternative to smoking restrictions, Philip Morris could use that to persuade other communities to do the same.

How the ventilation proposal got into the New York bill is a mystery. No one on the City Council takes credit for it, and a spokesman says it is unclear who inserted the language. "As far as I know, the language was put in there because there is some controversy" about ventilation, says the spokesman, Jordan Barowitz. Philip Morris' Ryan says he can't discuss details of the company's lobbying in New York City. But the company has been "actively involved in the legislative process" in many localities, he says.

Other localities have been down this same road. Cities include Anchorage, Alaska; Little Rock; and Mesa, Ariz., and states include Minnesota and Washington. In Mesa in 1999, the industry nearly had its biggest victory. The City Council passed a bill allowing ventilation as an alternative to tough smoking restrictions. This was in response to a ventilation demonstration prepared by representatives from Chelsea Group, a consultancy in Itasca, Ill., that works closely with Philip Morris. The consultants were under instructions to make no health claims. But the demo succeeded on aesthetic grounds alone.

The victory, however, was short-lived. Local health advocates, alarmed by the ventilation legislation, protested vigorously that the health hazards remained. Four months later, the Mesa City Council reversed itself, reinstating regulations that required doors between smoke-free restaurants and adjoining bars where smoking is allowed.

STACKED DECK. Task forces to evaluate ventilation technology are the tobacco industry's latest ploy--but there is nothing novel about obfuscation. For decades, the industry has tried to create controversy around established facts. It produced consultants and "studies" arguing that smoking didn't cause cancer, that secondhand smoke wasn't dangerous, and that smoking restrictions could hobble businesses. This time around, with ventilation, it is encouraging the creation of task forces that are often required to include members from the hotel and restaurant industries, thus stacking the membership in favor of the tobacco industry.

A second hearing on the New York bill will probably be held this summer. In the meantime, the ventilation question may come up in other cities and towns, and it's bound to be controversial. In communities with active local health groups, such proposals are likely to be defeated. In communities where the health issues are not clearly pointed out, well-meaning city council members might find themselves relying solely on information supplied by Philip Morris and its consultants. That will be good news for Philip Morris--and bad news for public health.

Paul Raeburn covers science and the environment from New York.

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