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Tobacco Firms Sue EPA Over Secondhand Smoke Finding : Health: The suit claims the federal agency ignored evidence. Cigarette opponents predict the move will backfire.

June 23, 1993|PRADNYA JOSHI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The tobacco industry Tuesday sued the Environmental Protection Agency, claiming that the federal agency used faulty science in a report concluding that secondhand cigarette smoke causes 3,000 lung cancer deaths a year among nonsmokers.

"The EPA has put politics over science," said Dan Donahue, vice president and legal counsel for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based maker of such leading brands as Camel and Winston. "The Environmental Protection Agency exceeded the authority that Congress gave to it," Donahue said in joining Reynolds' main rival--Philip Morris Inc., which makes Marlboro cigarettes--and several grower and cigarette vendor groups in asking a Greensboro, N.C., federal court to declare the EPA report null and void.

The industry claims that the EPA ignored other evidence that secondhand smoke is not dangerous. "What the EPA has done is that they cherry-picked data from various sources," said Reynolds attorney Robert Weber.

The widely distributed report has been the basis of many ordinances around the country restricting smoking in public places, and the industry's suit appears to be an attempt to stop the trend.

The fact that many municipalities have cited the report in recent months worries the industry, Donahue said. The suit does not seek monetary damages, but Donahue said the report has driven down cigarette sales.

The EPA report was one of the principal sources cited by supporters of a proposed ordinance banning smoking in Los Angeles restaurants, which is scheduled for a City Council vote today. "I think the industry is fighting this because the EPA is a credible source," said Glenn Barr, deputy to Councilman Marvin Braude, the ordinance's sponsor.

The EPA declined to comment on the suit because its lawyers had not reviewed the filing, but the agency stands behind its report, said spokesman Dave Ryan. "We want to reaffirm our commitment to the scientific validity and integrity of this report," he said.

Private anti-smoking activists predicted that the lawsuit will backfire on the tobacco industry because it will simply draw more attention to the scientific evidence against smoking. "The industry has really shot itself in the foot by filing this lawsuit," said Ahron Leichtman, executive director for Citizens for a Tobacco-Free Society, based in San Francisco.

Even though the suit was filed in the heart of tobacco country, anti-smoking organizations said the EPA should prevail.

"Even in North Carolina, there is no way the tobacco industry can win," said John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health. Banzhaf said that even if the suit goes to trial, the tobacco industry is "sure to lose" because the EPA's main conclusion has also been reached by dozens of other organizations, including the surgeon general and the American Medical Assn.

"You can't sue a scientific conclusion," said Banzhaf, a professor at George Washington University.

While the industry was in court in the East, it won a widely watched lawsuit in Washington state that some observers thought could lead to a flood of small claims against cigarette companies. A Mercer Island small-claims court rejected a claim from an ex-smoker who wanted Philip Morris to pay the $1,154 cost of his smoking-cessation treatments. The court said the statute of limitations had expired for Al Deskiewicz's claim that the company had failed to warn the public that cigarettes are addictive.

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