The conflicting rights of smokers and nonsmokers and the tobacco industry sales are at stake as the United States surgeon general and the industry do battle again. The latest issue: whether tobacco smoke is a hazard to nonsmokers. In his just-released report, US Surgeon General C.Everett Koop concludes that the smoke of others is ``a cause of disease'' to nonsmokers, including the children of smokers. Separating smokers from nonsmokers in the same air space, as at a restaurant, ``may reduce, but does not eliminate, the exposure,'' he adds.
The Koop report, the latest of his annual findings on tobacco and health, comes against a backdrop of a decade of increasing support from state and local governments, and from private industry, for the rights of nonsmokers to breathe air not filled with tobacco smoke.
The Koop reports notes that all but nine states have laws that regulate smoking in some public places, and that they are enacting these laws at a faster rate, and more comprehensively, in recent years. More than 80 cities and counties have smoking laws enacted by local government, the report also notes.
In the 1980s private industry has joined government in restricting smoking. The newest battle is in the workplace, where industry efforts, combined with government laws, have restricted smoking in many firms. ``Approximately 35 percent of businesses have adopted smoking policies,'' Dr. Koop says. Nine states and more than 70 communities, the Koop report says, regulate smoking in private businesses, and 12 states regulate smoking where government employees work.
With these developments, the tobacco industry faces the threat of lower sales and profits. Koop, a physician, says policies that restrict smoking in the workplace ``appear to be followed by a decrease in smokers' cigarette consumption at work and an increase in enrollment in company-sponsored smoking-cessation programs.''
Further, he notes ``strong and growing'' support, as indicated by opinion polls, for restricting or banning smoking in a variety of public places.
``Today,'' says Health and Human Services Secretary Otis Bowen, ``only 30 percent of the adult population in the United States are smokers - the lowest level of smoking'' since World War II.
The tobacco industry disagrees with Koop on the effects of smoke on nonsmokers. It calls ``unfounded'' claims that smoke harms nonsmokers. In a statement released before the Koop report, it accused the surgeon general and others at the Department of Health and Human Services of having ``attempted to censor the views of independent scientists and abuse science on the question of cigarette smoke in the air and the health of nonsmokers.''
Dr. Bowen supports Koop's conclusions. Based on them, he says, ``the judgment can now be made that exposure to environmental tobacco smoke can cause disease, including lung cancer, in nonsmokers.''
He says the question of whether tobacco smoke was carcinogenic to smokers was resolved more than 20 years ago.
Bowen urges that ``parents should refrain from smoking around small children both as a means of protecting their children's health and to set a good example. ...''