Researchers Sound Alarm on Second-Hand Smoke

It's been a bad week for tobacco companies. First, a former TWA flight attendant was awarded $5.5 million in her lawsuit against four major tobacco companies. Now, a group of researchers declare second-hand smoke to be a greater carcinogen than previously thought.

Lynn French, who blames her chronic sinusitis on the secondhand smoke she inhaled while working as a TWA flight attendant before smoking was banned on planes, sued Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Lorillard. She asked for $1 million. On Tuesday, a jury awarded her $5.5 million.

On Wednesday, a group of 29 experts from 12 countries convened by the Monographs Programme of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO), announced that the cancer risk from smoking, both for smokers and those breathing second-hand smoke, is even greater than previously thought, and causes cancer in more parts of the body than previously believed. As a result, the group is classifying second-hand smoke as "carcinogenic to humans."

The WHO Working Group notes, "one-half of all persistent cigarette smokers are eventually killed by a tobacco-caused disease. Half of these deaths occur in middle age (35-69 years), when those killed by tobacco lose on average 20-25 years of nonsmoker life expectancy." There is an emerging epidemic in females and in developing countries, according to the group, which adds that while annually tobacco accounts for millions of cancer deaths worldwide, it causes an even greater number of premature deaths from cardiovascular and lung diseases and from stroke than from cancer. "Nonetheless," says the Working Group, "tobacco use is the largest cause of preventable cancers around the world."

The Working Group added additional cancer sites in the body to the already very long list of cancers caused by smoking. Some of these are among the most common kinds of cancer around the world, including cancers of the stomach, liver, uterine cervix, and kidney (renal cell carcinoma) and myeloid leukemia. In addition, the cancer risks of tobacco smoking are greatly enhanced for some cancer sites when combined with exposure to other known carcinogens.

Researchers found the lung cancer risks of smoking are similar in women and men when it has been continued equally long and in similar ways. In the United States and the United Kingdom (where many women have smoked cigarettes throughout adult life), roughly 90 percent of lung cancers in both men and women are attributable to cigarette smoking.

But even among those people who have never smoked, researchers found an increased risk of lung cancer. "Nonsmokers are exposed to the same carcinogens as active smokers. Even the typical levels of passive exposure have been shown to cause lung cancer among never smokers. Second-hand tobacco smoke is carcinogenic to humans," noted the Working Group.

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