Tobacco industry goes to court over federal ruling on secondhand smoke

June 23, 1993|By New York Times News Service

Leading forces of the tobacco industry sued the federal government yesterday to overturn its declaration that secondhand tobacco smoke causes cancer.

Groups representing tobacco growers and distributors, as well as the country's two leading cigarette makers, Philip Morris Cos. Inc. and the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., asked a Federal District Court in Greensboro, N.C., to nullify the designation of smoke from other people's cigarettes as a carcinogen, a claim made by the Environmental Protection Agency in January.

The move was the first unified effort by the industry to prevent governmental agencies from restricting smoking in public places.

Steven C. Parrish, a vice president and general counsel for Philip Morris, said at a news conference in Washington that the environmental agency's linkage of secondhand smoke to increased health risks in nonsmokers was "among the most flawed ever" presented by the agency. The lawsuit accused the agency of using flawed scientific methodology to arrive at its conclusion and of overstepping its authority.

The plaintiffs argued that "cherry picking" -- or manipulating results to fit the environmental agency's conclusions -- had adversely affected the industry by shrinking the amount of space available to smokers in restaurants, sports arenas, airplanes, trains and workplaces.

The lawsuit, which would be tried before a judge without a jury, was immediately criticized by anti-tobacco groups as frivolous, unfounded and the latest attempt in a 40-year campaign to deny that cigarette smoking causes cancer. One anti-smoking advocate dismissed the lawsuit as a tactic intended to delay government smoking bans, and predicted that the industry would not prevail.

The lawsuit, which is to be tried in North Carolina because three of the plaintiffs are based there, comes as the $45 billion tobacco industry is under siege by health organizations and government agencies at all levels which are striving to reduce or eliminate smoking.

The intended effect of the lawsuit is to delay the government from proceeding with a rule-making process that could ultimately lead to even more severe smoking restrictions than currently exist. Much of this action is being taken as a result of a report by the Environmental Protection Agency titled "Respiratory Health Effects of Passive Smoking: Lung Cancer and Other Disorders."

A spokesman for the environmental agency, Dave Ryan, said the agency stood by its report, adding that an independent panel of 16 experts had twice unanimously endorsed the agency's position, presented by William K. Reilly, who was then administrator of the agency. Reilly was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, but his successor, Carol M. Browner, was.

Besides the two cigarette makers, who accounted for more than 71 percent share of the domestic market last year with combined sales revenue of more than $16 billion, the four other plaintiffs are groups representing a cross section of the tobacco industry, including farmers who grow the two major varieties of leaves used in cigarettes, flue-cured and burley; warehouse operators, wholesalers and vendors.

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