WASHINGTON -- The tobacco industry began what is expected to be a vigorous counterattack against the government assault on smoking yesterday as R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. launched a public relations campaign to "bring some balance to the debate surrounding secondhand smoke and other issues surrounding cigarettes."
In full-page advertisements in major U.S. newspapers, the company claimed that non-smokers are routinely exposed to "very little" secondhand smoke.
The ads claimed that, in a month, a non-smoker living with a smoker would be exposed to environmental smoke that was, on average, the equivalent of smoking 1 1/2 cigarettes. "A non-smoking waiter working eight hours a day, five days a week" for a month would be exposed to the equivalent of two cigarettes, they said.
"And a non-smoker sharing a modern office with a smoker would, on average, be exposed to the equivalent of 1 1/4 cigarettes," the ads concluded.
The company's action comes at a time when smokers are under an unprecedented siege by the federal government, states and other forces.
Two weeks ago, tobacco proponents suffered a significant defeat when the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health approved a measure that would impose widespread restrictions on smoking in public facilities.
Also, the Labor Department has proposed rules to prohibit smoking in the workplace, and the Pentagon has announced it will do so at its work sites worldwide.
Most of these initiatives have been fueled by the decision of the Environmental Protection Agency to classify secondhand smoke as a "Class A carcinogen," meaning it is an indisputable cause of cancer.
The EPA and an array of medical and public health experts have called secondhand tobacco smoke a cause of lung cancer and heart disease in non-smokers, and of asthma in children.
The agency has estimated that environmental smoke causes about 3,000 lung cancer deaths a year in non-smokers and that up to 300,000 children younger than 18 months become sick every year from it.
The industry has challenged the EPA ruling, asserting that the agency did not conduct original research and that its conclusions were based on flawed science.
EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner lashed out at the Reynolds campaign yesterday, saying it "will not distract the public from the real issue: that secondhand smoke poses a serious health problem."
She added, in a statement: "EPA absolutely stands by its scientific and extensively documented classification of secondhand tobacco smoke as a Class A carcinogen -- a serious threat to non-smokers and especially to children."
Dr. Chris Coggins, a toxicologist who is a scientist with Reynolds, said the company's calculations were based on measuring nicotine levels in the air, since it was a compound found both in mainstream smoke and secondhand smoke and is "the only commonly used secondhand smoke marker that is specific to tobacco."
But Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat who chairs the health subcommittee and is a leading congressional foe of tobacco, said Reynolds' work was based on "a discredited methodology," since "nicotine is rapidly depleted from the air."
He added: "If RJR used ammonia instead of nicotine to measure cigarette equivalence, it would have found that some non-smokers smoke the equivalent of 56 cigarettes per day."