'Nonsmokers arise!' (1978-1986)

By the late 1970s, the race was on to find credible evidence that secondhand smoke posed a health risk to nonsmokers. When the Surgeon General first brought the passive smoking theory to the public's attention in 1972, it was almost entirely hypothetical. It did, however, seem to many people, as Richard Kluger remarked, only "common sense" that if tobacco smoke caused disease in smokers then it was possible, even probable, that it could do the same to those who breathed it involuntarily. On the other hand, it was also not unreasonable to assume that, although tobacco contained carcinogens, they only provoked disease in a minority of smokers after decades of heavy, continuous and direct use.* Even the most potent toxins could be safely encountered at low enough levels. Why not tobacco?

Several of the biggest names in smoking research believed the threat from Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS), as it was known, was illusory from the outset. Cuyler Hammond pointed out that even as GASP and ASH were promoting the passive smoking theory in the mid-1970s, there was "no shred of evidence" to support it. Ernst Wynder, who had spent twenty-five years researching smoking and health, told a cancer conference in 1975 that "passive smoking can provoke tears or can be otherwise disagreeable, but it has no influence on health [because] the doses are so small." Even some anti-smoking groups were sceptical. In 1973, ASH (UK) set up a committee to look at the evidence and concluded that "there is virtually no risk to the healthy nonsmoker apart from exceptional exposure to tobacco smoke in an unventilated room or a close car."

Plausible or not, it was a theory with obvious and immediate appeal to the anti-smoking lobby...

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