DANVILLE, VIRGINIA — Danville, Virginia--AT 6.50 A.M., I walked into the hospital cafeteria. Sliding my tray past the scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits and doughnuts, I picked up a glass of orange juice, a box of bran cereal and a container of skim milk, and settled in to read the morning paper with my breakfast.
As soon as my seat hit the chair, I noticed something and looked up. There at the next table were two women in hospital uniform, both smoking cigarettes. I looked behind me. There were four women at another table, three of them smoking cigarettes. I took my tray into an adjoining dining room, not yet busy.
Before I had finished my coffee, the hospital shift had changed. I counted 11 tables occupied, by about 30 people. At nine of those tables, people were smoking cigarettes. Most of them were nurses or other hospital employees.
This was the day the journal of the American Heart Association published the latest study showing that passive smoking is the third leading cause of preventable death in America. The first is active smoking, the second alcohol.
Passive smoking, the inhalation of somebody else's tobacco smoke, kills almost 53,000 Americans every year. That is about as many as were killed in the Korean War. The only news in this is the figures; the surgeon general and repeated non-governmental studies have shown that smoking is dangerous to both the smoker and those around him, or her.
The Tobacco Institute, the industry lobby in Washington, scoffs at this latest study as it has at all the others. "We believe that the existing science shows that any long-term effect of passive smoke has not been proven," its spokesman says.
That response is predictable from the tobacco industry. Nor is it surprising that tobacco companies in this part of the world press free cigarettes on visitors to their headquarters. But it is truly mind-boggling that after all the evidence, hospitals would tolerate smoking anywhere on their premises.
I note the conflict between health and habit here because I was in the middle of it the day the new passive smoking report was published. It is not unique to this hospital or to the tobacco belt, though there is an extra edge of defiance in the way some institutions reject anti-smoking advice in places where jobs depend on tobacco.
At Duke University hospital in Durham, there is an outside portico off the lobby where incurable tobacco addicts go, whatever the weather, to escape the no-smoking rule applied in the rest of the hospital. And to be fair, I must say that most of the Danville hospital is off limits to smoking, too.
The scandal -- yes, scandal -- is that any institution concerned with health should allow smoking anywhere on its grounds. The scandal is that every institution concerned with health is not actively campaigning against smoking, on its grounds or anywhere else.
Active and passive smoking together account for more than 450,000 deaths annually in this country. In two years, they kill almost as many Americans as have died in all our wars put together.
A few years ago, anyone who passed up cholesterol-laden eggs and bacon in favor of bran and skim milk would have been labeled by many as a food faddist, a crank. That's the way non-smokers were seen when they objected to smoking by others around them, even after the surgeon general's first report showed 27 years ago that smoking was a deadly habit. Mind your own business, they were told; if I want to smoke, that's my problem, not yours.
Today, anybody who accepts that rationale is foolish.
Ask Dr. William Parmley, chief of cardiology at the University of California-San Francisco, who reviewed rates of death in 10 separate studies of smokers' non-smoking spouses. From those findings, he concluded that passive smoking kills 37,000 people annually by heart disease, 3,700 by lung cancer and 12,000 by other forms of cancer.
For their own sake, to avoid becoming one of those statistics, everyone with common sense will speak up henceforth against smoking by those around them, in the home, on the job and, yes, in hospitals. They will do so even if the guilty smoker is their best friend. Indeed, they will do so especially if the smoker is their best friend. Speaking up, because it is so hard to do, is the best proof of that friendship.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun. His column appears in The Sun Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.