Smoking As A Weapon Of Mass Destruction

Smoking As A Weapon of Mass Destruction

For decades smoking has been glamorized and alluring. It has been viewed as sexy, sophisticated, and elegant. It wasn’t until the 1960s that health authorities began challenging the “wonderful idea” of lighting up. Today, cigarettes have become the new weapon of mass destruction. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking is responsible for 440,000 premature deaths each year and claims ten times as many lives per year than car accidents. One cigarette contains about 4,000 harmful chemicals. Some of these chemicals include arsenic, a poison, methanol, found in rocket fuel, butane, found in lighter fluid, carbon monoxide, the same chemical exerted from car exhaust, formaldehyde, which is used to preserve body tissue and fabrics, and ammonium, used for floor and toilet cleaning.
Despite the extensive array of studies that smoking is very toxic and often fatal, millions of Americans still choose to smoke, but what about those who choose not to smoke, yet still suffer the extreme consequences associated with smoking?
The effects of secondhand smoke, also known as side stream smoke, involuntary smoking, and environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) have been debated since the 1950s. 40 percent of non-smoking adults and a whopping 60 percent of children, ages 0-13 are exposed to secondhand smoke, which kills 53,000 Americans each year. Furthermore, those exposed to secondhand are 30 percent more likely to experience heart disease and cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency released a study just this year considering secondhand smoke a class A carcinogen for which there is no safe exposure. (Class A, meaning it is known to cause cancer in humans and can be classified in the same category as asbestos, mustard gas, and arsenic.) Even only brief exposure to tobacco smoke in the environment immediately begins damaging cells, increasing the risk of blood clots, heart attack and stroke.
The first significant evidence linking secondhand smoke to cancer comes from morbidity studies conducted in Japan and Greece in the early 1980s. The most famous study comes from Takeshi Hirayama, a Japanese epidemiologist who compared death rates from lung cancer among nonsmoking women who were married to smokers with the death rates of nonsmoking women who were married to nonsmokers. Japanese homemakers typically spend much of their time in the home and rarely smoke, making them the most ideal group of study in the effects of secondhand smoke. Hirayama found that women married to smokers had a 40 percent greater lung cancer rate and that cancers were worse in the homes of heavy smokers. The study made front page news around the globe, and the tobacco industry countered with full-page newspaper ads alleging that the study contained statistical errors.
A similar study conducted in 1991 in the Washington D.C. area showed the pap smear results of 145 healthy, nonsmoking women. The study showed that women who were regularly exposed to secondhand smoke contained significantly higher levels of nicotine in their system than that of nonsmoking women who were not exposed to secondhand smoke, thus increasing the risk of cervical cancer by at least 50 percent.
Smoking, specifically in the workplace, has raised many issues throughout history. In comparing smoking employees with nonsmoking employees, one study estimated that a smoker is absent 50 percent more often, uses the employer’s health insurance 1.5 times more, has an accident rate twice as high, and takes more time per day in breaks. In 1976, a landmark case upholding the right of an employee to have a smoke-free work environment aided the anti-smoking movement. In Shimp vs. New Jersey Bell Telephone, office worker Donna Shimp complained of sever nose, throat, and eye irritation, nausea, vomiting, and headaches. After her physician diagnosed her with a cigarette smoke allergy, her company installed an exhaust fan near her work space. When the situation did not improve, she was asked to work for the company in a different location, which would result in a demotion and pay cut. After many filed complaints to government agencies, she sued for injunctive relief, asking the court to require the management to remove the smoke from the area completely.
The judge hearing the case wrote, “The evidence is clear and overwhelming. Cigarette smoke contaminates and pollutes the air, creating a health hazard not merely to the smoker, but to all those around her who must rely upon the same air supply. The right of an individual to risk his or her own health does not include the right to jeopardize the health of those who must remain around him or her to properly perform the duties of their job.” In 1986, the surgeon general released a study stating that the simple separation of smokers and nonsmokers within the same airspace may reduce but does not eliminate the exposure of nonsmokers to environmental tobacco smoke. Thus, the war against public smoking begins. At the First World Conference on Nonsmokers’ Rights, held in Washington in 1986, the owner of the new Nonsmokers’ Inn in Dallas reported saving thousands of dollars per year by allowing only nonsmoking employees and guests in his hotel. Continental Airlines began cutting fares by 10 percent for nonsmoking passengers. U.S. hospitals began banning smoking by employees, physicians, patients, and visitors. Smoking was also banned in government buildings, affecting more than 1 million federal employees.
In December of 1987, Congress passed an experimental smoking ban on domestic airline flights of two hours or less. The ban was vigorously opposed by the tobacco industry; however, the ban won, mainly due to the dramatic testimony of flight attendants. A large number of flight attendants were employed throughout a significant period of time and it was those attendants that were experiencing throat polyps and chronic lung inflammation.
“After a chest X-ray, my doctor asked me how many cigarettes per day I smoked. After I told him that I was a nonsmoker, he informed me that I had the lungs of a two-pack-a-day smoker. He blamed my lung-spots on the secondary smoke on the flights,” testified one attendant. In 1989, after the American Association for Respiratory Care released a survey showing that 84 percent of travelers supported the smoking ban, Congress made the ban permanent extending it to almost all domestic flights.
Today, smoking bans are a nation-wide issue, but California remains to be the battleground for the topic, where dozens of localities are pressing for more bans. California’s hospitality industry warns against economic losses and lay-offs, citing a familiar but undocumented argument that business and profits will decrease with the implementation of more bans. Arguments countered by Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights cite studies showing that after smoke-free ordinances in Bellflower, California and Aspen, Colorado were passed in restaurants, business was actually increased due to more visits from nonsmokers. Executive vice president of the California Restaurant Association, Stanley Kiker notes that a study from the California State Board of Equalization (the agency that collects sales taxes) showed that smoking bans have not hurt restaurants.

The effects of secondhand smoke on adults are severe, but what about the effects on children? Many children are exposed to secondhand smoke without any chance of escape. It is estimated that 430 newborns die of SIDS every year believed to be caused by the toxicity of this side stream smoke. Children of smokers are more prone to wheezing, coughing, sputum production, ear infections, asthma, bronchial irritation, and other respiratory problems. Furthermore, women who smoke, or women who are married to smokers, typically produce smaller babies. Secondhand is more dangerous for children as opposed to adults because children’s lungs are still developing, and children exposed to secondhand smoke show two times higher nicotine levels than nonsmoking adults exposed to secondhand smoke. Beginning in January 2008, any motorist found lighting up with a minor present in their vehicle can be fined up to $100.
“We thought this was of particular importance because it focuses on children in a confined space and where they have limited access to leaving,” states Alecia Sanchez of the American Cancer Society. Many rights activists disagree stating that the ordinance infringes on their parental and property rights as well as the right to privacy. They state that they should be able to smoke in their own vehicles, but does this ring true if the right to smoke affects another’s right to breathe clean, fresh air and furthermore, harms other members in the family?
Regulating motorist behavior is nothing new. You must wear seatbelts. You must strap small children into safety seats. You are not allowed to have opened, alcoholic beverages in your vehicle, and beginning July 1, 2008, cell phone restrictions will be enforced, so why then, is the idea of not smoking in vehicles in the presence of minors such a contested issue? Our children are too young to have a voice. They must be protected and smoking bans are the only protection they can rely on.
It may be possible that increasing smoking bans will decrease the amount of Americans who smoke. If 90 percent of public areas are smoke-free, smoking will continue to become more difficult and inconvenient. In 1984, 25 percent of California adults were smokers. In 2008, that number dropped significantly to only 13 percent. The tobacco industry, however, is finding ways to fight back. On August 29, 2006, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported that between 1998 and 2004, nicotine levels in many cigarette brands had increased by 10 percent. California’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger is also pressing for a smoke-free America by teaming with Democrats to push a proposed ballot to increase cigarette taxes by $1.75 per pack.
Smoking will continue to be a constant push-pull struggle, each side vigorously debating their views. Hopefully, an increase on smoking bans will help to eliminate the colossal problem of smoking-related health issues in America. Everyone has the right to smoke, but those who choose not to smoke also have a the right to exercise the decision not to as well. I am hopeful that someday a common ground on the issue will be resolved, but it goes without saying that nonsmokers, especially those that are helpless children, must be protected.

1. Glantz, S. and Parmley, W. “Passive Smoking and Heart Disease: Epidemiology, Physiology, and Biochemistry” circulation, January 1991, p. 1

2. “Secondhand Smoke and the EPA.” Issues and Controversies on File. 20, November 1998. Facts on File News Service.

3. “Tobacco and Health.” Issues and Controversies on File. 11, April 2007. Facts on File News Service.

4. “Tobacco: Report Finds Nicotine Increases in Cigarettes.” Facts on File: World News Digest. 21, September 2006. Facts on File News Service.

5. Saunders, J. “New Smoking Restriction Ignites Debate.” Sacramento Bee. Sacramento, CA.
7, January 2008. Pp. A1+

6. Szabo, L. “Secondhand Smoke Debate Over.” USA Today. 28, June 2006 pp. A2+

7. Peck, P. and Susman, E. “Smoking: Habit Persists Despite ‘64 Reports.” United Press International. 30, January 2004. Pp. 3-5

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