As the current settlement negotiations between the US's two largest tobacco companies and the federal government suggest, the tobacco industry's position is becoming increasingly indefensible.
Yet some commentators are still asserting that the industry should be able to maintain its immunity to liability claims by individuals. The states may be able to sue successfully for their tobacco-related Medicare costs, this argument goes. But individuals should remain unsuccessful in the courts because it has long been known that smoking is bad for one's health, and people are responsible for their own choices. This reasoning lets the tobacco companies too easily off the moral and legal hook.
I'll concede that individual smokers must bear responsibility for their own choices. (Let's disregard for this discussion the Liggett Group's admission that the industry targeted minors, people whom we regard as less than fully responsible for their choices, in order to lure them into nicotine addiction.) But the logical fallacy is to leap from the idea that the smoker is responsible to the conclusion that therefore the industry is free of responsibility. A Shakespearean lesson Responsibility is not an all-or-nothing thing. The hit man is certainly responsible for the murder he commits, but so is the guy who hired him. Rioters can be prosecuted for their mayhem, but "incitement to riot" is also - rightly - considered a crime. And when it comes to the use of deception and manipulation to seduce others into making wrong choices, we in the audience of Shakespeare's "Othello" think Othello, while also blaming himself for his unjust killing of the fair Desdemona, is justified when he runs his sword through the deceitful Iago. As is evident in the Liggett documents, tobacco companies are in the position of Iago. For decades, they worked to create false confidence in the minds of smokers. It is only partly true that everyone "knew" what they needed to know about tobacco to make responsible choices. As with responsibility, so also is "knowing" a matter of degree. True, there were scientific studies and then warning labels on cigarette packs. But there were also doubts - deliberately and deceptively planted. And these doubts had effects on what people "knew" and thus on the decisions they made. If there were no such effects, then what was the point of the industry spending so many millions to spread their false assurances? That whole campaign of deliberate disinformation noted in the Liggett settlement - about tobacco's addictive nature and its health effects - would have been a foolish waste of money. …