Lobby of the 7 Aces

November 25, 1990|By Ernest B. Furgurson

WASHINGTON — Washington. WHEN A DRAFT report by the Environmental Protection Agency said last summer that smoking caused thousands of deaths a year among non-smokers, the tobacco industry scoffed.

It always does. It has since the first surgeon general's report on the public-health menace of smoking, 26 years ago. In Winston-Salem an executive knee jerks, and in Washington a spokesman says the latest study was incomplete, that scientific methods were not used, that industry research shows smoking isn't really all that bad.

This report stated that others' smoking kills about 3,800 non-smoking Americans a year and that children of smokers have more respiratory problems than those of non-smokers. The generality was not new, but for the first time a government agency had put it into hard figures.

As fast as the report was issued, the standard response followed. But never, it seemed, had the industry been so confident in its denials as in June when it pooh-poohed the EPA report. Never had it predicted so grandly that another review, this one properly scientific, would prove its case. The spokeswoman in that case was Brennan Dawson, vice president of public affairs for the Tobacco Institute, the industry lobby. She said the EPA report was full of inaccuracies, one more example of anti-smoking prejudice in some government agencies.

Just wait, she said -- when the study is reviewed by an independent EPA science board, its conclusions about the danger of second-hand smoke will be shattered.

Only now do we understand why Ms. Dawson publicly put such faith in a review that had not yet taken place, when other non-industry studies were consistently strengthening the case against smoking. Maybe she knew something then that the rest of us didn't find out till this week: a sizable fraction of that scientific review board has ties to the tobacco industry. That, apparently, constitutes independence.

One of the board members, James E. Woods Jr., of Virginia Tech, was negotiating with Philip Morris for a $1-million research grant. He said he had been talking with the tobacco company for six or eight months -- since shortly before the draft report and Ms. Dawson's prediction. He expects to complete the deal in another two months or so -- shortly after the review board meets to consider the draft report.

Mr. Woods insists that the grant negotiations will not influence his thinking on the report, and he may be right. He has been saying for years that the best way to control smoke in public buildings is to prevent smoking. The EPA maintains that as long as Mr. Woods' grant application was public knowledge, there could be no conflict with his work on the board. But at that point it wasn't public knowledge; the agency spokesman said it would have been disclosed at the December review session.

Chances are that if it were revealed to the other board members, it would cause very little stir, because six of the 16 members are connected with the Center for Indoor Air Research, an operation largely paid for by the tobacco industry. A seventh reportedly was pushed by Philip Morris. One member was rejected because he wrote the surgeon general's report on passive smoking, but reinstated after his firing became public.

I don't know what church Ms. Dawson attends, but her prediction last summer brings up Mark Twain's crack about the fellow with the calm confidence of a Christian with four aces. In this case she has about seven, which explains why she was not just confident, but cocksure.

Whether Mr. Woods gets his grant or not, whether the industry-linked board members stay on or not, whether Ms. Dawson and the Tobacco Institute say so or not, the December review has been tainted by these connections.

If the board as now constituted says the draft report is faulty, that will prove nothing except the extent of industry influence. If the word ''independent'' has any meaning, the tobacco industry's representation on any such review board will be precisely zero.

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