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California Declares Secondhand Smoke a Toxic Air Pollutant and a Cause of Breast Cancer in Younger Women and Other Major Medical Problems

Jan 28, 2006 | Newsinferno News Staff California has always been one of the states in the forefront of advances in environmental awareness and consumer protection in the U.S. Although a number of its policies in this regard have been considered radical when first advocated or adopted, they often wind up being accepted by other states. Crusading legal actions by state officials (like its current Attorney General, Bill Lockyer) have also championed consumer-related issues for many years.

Thus, it came as no surprise to many when, on Thursday, a unanimous California Air Resources Board (“Board”) declared secondhand smoke to be a toxic air pollutant. As the first state to make such a declaration, the stage has been set for even tougher anti-smoking measures in California and in other states that have already adopted varying levels of restrictions on smoking.

The action by the Board, which has gained the reputation of being willing to implement significant restrictions on fossil fuel pollution, immediately drew praise from leading medical and environmental experts around the country who labeled the decision as one having international implications that will have a dramatic effect on opinions and policies in the months and years to come. 

In reaching its determination, the Board unanimously adopted the findings of a 1,200-page report by the California Environmental Protection Agency, (CalEPA) that reported a striking increase in the risk of breast cancer in young women who are exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke.

The CalEPA report also linked secondhand smoke to other serious illnesses like asthma, heart disease, premature births, other cancers, and health problems in children.

The ruling by the Board now places secondhand tobacco smoke in the same category as arsenic, benzene, and diesel exhaust. Thus, in California at least, secondhand smoke is now considered a "toxic air contaminant" under state law. This new classification could lead to even tighter restrictions on smoking in what is already the nation's toughest state in terms of anti-smoking laws.

The massive CalEPA report is not without controversy since it challenges conventional scientific thinking about the possible causes of breast cancer. Few previous have been willing to acknowledge a connection between female smokers and breast cancer.

However, Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control, Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, stated: "If people are serious about breast cancer, they have to deal with secondhand smoke. That's what this is all about."

According to the CalEPA report, young women exposed to secondhand smoke increased their risk of developing breast cancer by 68% to 120%.  Although this finding conflicts with a 2004 report by the U.S. Surgeon General, the California researchers stand by their conclusion and attribute the conflict to the fact that their research is more current.

Tobacco giant R. J. Reynolds disputes the link as well as the reclassification saying that regardless of the dangers from indoor secondhand smoke, no current research supports regulators' decision to classify it as an air pollutant and no existing studies show that outdoor exposure “leads to any increased risk of tobacco-associated illness."

While willing to accept the plausibility of the hypothesis that secondhand smoke and breast cancer are somehow causally related, even groups like the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute view the existing data as not having “reached that level.”

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