The Colorado Tobacco Education and Prevention AllianceFACT SHEET:
Secondhand Smoke, the EPA and the Courts

In a 1992 report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlined a number of the serious diseases and health risks caused by secondhand smoke.(1) In response to tobacco industry legal challenges, in August 1998 a U.S. District Court in North Carolina struck down the report’s finding that secondhand smoke is a “Group A” carcinogen (i.e., a carcinogen with no safe level of exposure for humans), saying that the EPA had not followed certain required procedures and that the 1992 evidence did not support its finding.(2) But the Court did not question or invalidate the EPA report’s findings on other serious harms caused by secondhand smoke.(3) Nevertheless, the tobacco companies have misrepresented the 1998 Court ruling to argue, falsely, that secondhand smoke does not pose a significant health risk to non-smokers and to support their efforts to oppose and repeal laws making workplaces, restaurants, and other public areas smoke-free. In fact, what was true in 1992 is even more firmly established today: secondhand smoke causes cancer, heart disease, and numerous other serious health problems among nonsmokers, especially children, and kills thousands of people each year.

What Were the Major Conclusions of the 1992 EPA Rule?

For adults, the report concluded that, “ETS (environmental tobacco smoke) is a human lung carcinogen, responsible for approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths annually in U.S. nonsmokers” and the report found that secondhand smoke has a statistically significant effect on the respiratory health (e.g., reduced lung function) of nonsmoking adults.(4)

For children, the report concluded that, “ETS exposure is causally associated with an increased risk of lower respiratory tract infections (LRIs) such as bronchitis and pneumonia; increased prevalence of fluid in the middle ear, symptoms of upper respiratory tract irritation, a small but significant reduction in lung function, and additional episodes and increased severity of symptoms in children of asthma, with ETS exposure a risk factor for new cases of asthma in children who have not previously displayed symptoms.”(5)

While it is well established that secondhand smoke also causes many other diseases and health problems, the EPA report was “limited to analysis of respiratory effects, primarily lung cancer in non-smoking adults and non-cancer respiratory illness in children.”(6)

What Did the Court Actually Do In 1998?

The District Court did not dispute EPA’s conclusion that secondhand smoke causes lung disease, asthma, and other chronic respiratory disorders among nonsmokers, and especially children. The Court said nothing about passive smoke’s firmly established role in causing heart disease, sudden infant death syndrome, and a variety of other health problems.(7)

The Court did not even rule that secondhand smoke is not a carcinogen, but only that the EPA’s report had not, by itself, established in 1992 that secondhand smoke was a “Group A” carcinogen. In fact, the Court only evaluated the data and research that the EPA actually considered prior to making its 1992 findings. The judge took it upon himself to make scientific analyses and medical determinations in the place of qualified scientists and medical researchers. Whether or not the judge’s conclusions based on the 1992 evidence were valid, the enormous amount of additional scientific proof that had been published since 1992 clearly confirms that secondhand smoke causes cancer and merits the “Group A Carcinogen” designation. In another 1998 case, for example, a different federal judge, who was able to consider all the evidence up to that point, found that “It is beyond dispute that secondhand smoke is a carcinogen.”(8)

The EPA has appealed the 1998 Court ruling, and a decision on that appeal is expected in 2002.(9) Given the steadily accumulating evidence regarding the many serious harms caused by exposure to secondhand smoke since 1992, however, whether the Court upholds or overturns the 1998 ruling about the 1992 EPA findings is, in many ways, irrelevant. The facts are now clearer than ever that exposure to secondhand smoke poses major health risks to adults and children, and a ruling regarding EPA’s position on the matter ten years ago does not change the facts, as we know them today.

Cigarette Company Efforts to Mislead the Public About Secondhand Smoke

  • Prior to the Court ruling against the EPA, the tobacco industry paid thousands of dollars to more than a dozen scientists to send letters attacking the 1992 EPA finding to various medical journals and other publications.(10)
  • On its website, Philip Morris focuses on the procedural objections to the EPA’s 1992 carcinogen finding, stating that the Court “rejected the EPA assessment, largely based on findings that the agency did not adhere to applicable legal requirements and failed to adequately explain its results.” The Philip Morris website even acknowledges the growing scientific evidence that secondhand smoke is a serious health hazard, and even admits that there is “an impressive accumulating body of evidence that confirms and strengthens the EPA findings” in its 1992 report.(11)


(1) U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Office of Research and Development & Office of Air and Radiation, Respiratory Health Effects of Passive Smoking: Lung Cancer and Other Disorders, EPA/600/6-90/006F, December 1992.

(2) Memorandum Opinion, Flue Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corp. v. EPA, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, Winston-Salem Division, July 17, 1998.

(3) See id.

(4) EPA, Respiratory Health Effects of Passive Smoking: Lung Cancer and Other Disorders, December 1992.

(5) See id.

(6) See id.

(7) Memorandum Opinion, Flue Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corp. v. EPA, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, Winston-Salem Division, July 17, 1998.

(8) Memorandum of Decision and Order, Sayville Inn v. County of Suffolk, United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, August 3, 1998.

(9) EPA Press Release, September 15, 1998.

(10) Hanners, D. “Scientists Were Paid To Write Letters – Tobacco Industry Sought to Discredit EPA Report,” Pioneer Planet/St. Paul Press, August 4, 1998.

(11) Philip Morris’s “Options” website