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
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. …