Opinion: Flight attendants score big win in secondhand smoke case

By Phillip L. Polakoff, M.D.
Press Associates, Inc.

A $500,000 award to a flight attendant who blamed secondhand smoke for her bronchitis and sinus troubles has been upheld by a Florida appeals court. The decision could open the way for damage trials of up to 3,000 similar claims.

The ruling came in a test case for former TWA attendant Lynn French to interpret a $349 million settlement reached in 1997 between the tobacco industry and nonsmoking attendants.

The flight attendants blamed their illnesses on smoke in the airliner cabin before smoking was banned on domestic flights in 1990. They put their claims on hold pending the outcome of the French case - the first appeal in a system of mini-trials to determine individual damages.

The cigarette makers had argued that each jury should be required to determine whether secondhand smoke could cause disease.

The three-judge panel of Florida's 3rd District Court of Appeal said that question had already been answered in the settlement.

Although still questioning the language of the settlement, the nation's biggest cigarette makers, as of late in December, had not decided whether to ask the full court for a ruling.

This latest court ruling could focus fresh attention on the subject of secondhand smoke: What is it? How hazardous is it?

Secondhand smoke (SHS) includes both smoke from a burning cigarette, cigar or pipe, and smoke exhaled by smokers.

According to a recent report of the Tobacco Use Prevention Service of the Oklahoma State Department of Health, secondhand smoke is a mixture of more than 4,000 chemicals, many of which are strong irritants.

The report said 53,000 nonsmokers are killed each year by secondhand smoke in the United States. It is ranked as the third-leading cause of preventable death.

The SHS-caused deaths are primarily from cancer, heart disease and breathing disorders.

In 2000, the National Toxicology Program - a tough interdepartmental scientific review process - first listed secondhand smoke as a carcinogen in its periodic report required by Congress.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that SHS causes 3,000 lung cancer deaths in nonsmokers each year. SHS also causes nasal sinus cancer.

On the subject of heart disease and stroke, numerous studies confirm that SHS kills more Americans through heart disease than any other disease. Estimates of the SHS-caused heart disease toll in this country range from 35,000 to 62,000 deaths per year.

A 1999 study showed SHS exposure increases the risk of stroke by 58 percent.

A study of 32,000 nurses over several years showed that regular exposure to secondhand smoke at work increased their risk of coronary heard disease by 91 percent. Occasional exposure to SHS increased the risk by 58 percent compared to those who avoided exposure.

For asthma sufferers, SHS can cause immediate danger by triggering attacks. The majority of asthma sufferers report symptoms ranging from discomfort to severe distress from SHS exposure.

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If you have any questions or suggestion for future articles, write Dr. Polakoff at: 171 Alvarado Rd., Berkeley, Calif. 94705.



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