The data that went up in smoke.

Californians can't smoke in bars. Why? Lawmakers in Sacramento think they're protecting the health of patrons who don't smoke.

But breathing secondhand smoke doesn't cause cancer. At least there's no proof of it.

That's not the politically incorrect propaganda of the smokers' lobby. It's the conclusion of a major study by the World Health Organization, a smoking foe. And it has the data to back it up-data that California bar and nightclub owners would no doubt like to get their hands on.

If they knew more about the study, that is.

Far from California, across the Atlantic, the British press has amplified the results of the WHO study. But you'd be hard pressed to find the story in the American media.

Overseas interest might be greater because WHO tracked 2,000 people in six European countries. But some suspect anti-smoking bias is behind scare coverage here.

After all, the WHO study casts doubt on the Environmental Protection Agency's "meta-analysis" that called passive smoke a carcinogen and led to personal injury lawsuits. In effect, WHO found that nonsmokers breathing in a smoke-filled room are at no greater risk of developing lung cancer than they are breathing in a clear room.

WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer stated in its recent biennial report that the risk of lung cancer did increase slightly among those exposed to second hand smoke at work or at home from a smoking spouse, or both. But none of these increases was "statistically significant."

This means that "there's a good chance that there's no association whatsoever" between passive smoke and lung cancer, said Michael Gough, a senior associate and program manager at Congress' now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment, which advised committees on scientific policy.

Gough, now director of risk and science studies at the free-market Cato Institute, can hardly be accused of being a tool of the tobacco industry. He directed OTA's landmark '81 study, which found that direct smoking was behind 30% of U.S. cancer cases.

"It's very clear that smoking is bad," Gough said. But passive smoke is a different matter, he adds.

WHO's findings, first reported in early March, have received wide coverage in British papers such as the London-based Sunday Telegraph. The full study has yet to be published because it is "still in the process of peer review," said Enrique Madrigal, U.S. regional advisor to WHO for alcohol, tobacco and substance abuse.

But on this side of the Atlantic, most of the press has yet to lift the fog. "There's no question" that the American media would have jumped on the study's results if they had gone the other way, said Reason magazine senior editor Jacob Sullum, who wrote "For Your Own Good," a critique of the anti-smoking movement.

Despite the scant coverage so far, observers say the study could weaken the case for smoking bans and passive smoking suits. The prospect may have prompted WHO, which has long crusaded against tobacco, to issue a press release headlined in all-capital letters: "Passive Smoke Does Cause Lung Cancer; Do Not Let Them Fool You."

The release conceded that the findings were not statistically significant, but said that results were "very much in line with the results of similar studies both in Europe and elsewhere" that show increased risk.

Skeptics agree that the results are in line with other studies. But they add that most other studies also show the risk of lung cancer is so small as to be scientifically meaningless.

When it pooled the results of several passive smoke studies a few years ago, the EPA had to double its margin of error in order to show a small, albeit statistically significant, risk. "The bottom line on all the evidence on secondhand smoke and lung cancer is that it doesn't prove anything," Sullum said.

The link hasn't held up in court either.

Last month a Muncie, Ind., jury found that cigarette makers were not liable in the '91 lung cancer death of nonsmoker Mildred Wiley.

Lawyers for her husband, who brought the injury suit, claimed that Wiley contracted lung cancer through exposure to passive smoke at a veterans' hospital, where she worked as a nurse. She died at 56.

Upon hearing the verdict, "I was just shocked," said Joseph Young, one of the plaintiff's lawyers. "I thought that we were going to win. We've been working on this for six years." Young, who is considering an appeal, thought the case would be easier to win than direct smoking cases. How so? Wiley was a victim who did not assume the risk of other people's smoking, he explained.

But defense attorney, William Ohlemeyer hammered away at the lack of scientific proof.

"On the news, the public doesn't hear the other side of the story or the entirety of the science," Ohlemeyer said. "But in a courtroom, where you get the chance to tell both sides of the story, I was pretty confident a fair jury would find (that the scientific evidence was) very weak, very equivocal and just doesn't quite prove what people expected it to prove."

Ohlemeyer latched onto the WHO study, getting an expert witness to walk jurors through the findings in the final days of the trial.

Michael Thomas, whose father smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and died of lung cancer at 49, was just the type of juror plaintiff's lawyers were aiming for when they argued that jurors would in effect send a message to tobacco companies. But Thomas, a nonsmoker like the rest of the jurors, did not think the plaintiff's lawyers presented a convincing scientific case. "The defense learned a lot on the studies that had been done (that showed) that risks involved in terms of secondhand smoke were inconclusive," Thomas said in an interview. "The plaintiffs didn't do enough to contradict that."

In addition to lawsuits, the WHO study could play a role in state rows over smoking bans.

Some are up in arms because of a California smoking ban that has now extended to all bars as well as restaurants. Even lighting up in a cigar bar violates the law.

"You're starting to see an awful lot of civil disobedience," observed Kate Nelson, president of the California Licensed Beverage Association and owner of the Hollywood Palace, a 1,500-seat theater with six bars.

A bill recently passed the state Assembly to temporarily allow smoking in bars until a state regulatory agency comes up with a ventilation standard. It appears to be stalled in a Senate committee.

Nelson is hopeful that the WHO study will help her convince the public and lawmakers that the risks of passive smoke are overblown.

But she isn't holding her breath.

"People simply have it in their minds that cigarette smoke is the deadliest legal substance available," Nelson said.

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