They Call them “Warning Labels,” Don’t They?

by | Apr 7, 2000 | POLITICS

“They wanted to shut down ‘Big Tobacco.'” Thus explained a juror who agreed to award $20 million in punitive damages against Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds. Now, get this. The plaintiff, now dying of cancer, began smoking at 13 — several years after the Surgeon General required warning labels on cigarette packs. Leslie Whiteley, […]
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

“They wanted to shut down ‘Big Tobacco.'”

Thus explained a juror who agreed to award $20 million in punitive damages against Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds. Now, get this. The plaintiff, now dying of cancer, began smoking at 13 — several years after the Surgeon General required warning labels on cigarette packs.

Leslie Whiteley, a 40-year-old mother of four, sued the two tobacco companies, claiming cigarette smoking caused her lung cancer, and that the tobacco companies committed fraud in inducing children and teens to smoke. The Ventura County woman smoked two packs a day for 25 years. She also admitted using marijuana and other drugs, and did not deny abusing alcohol! In addition, the defense argued that she ignored her doctor’s warnings to quit smoking during her four pregnancies. For all these reasons, many industry analysts called the plaintiff’s cause relatively weak, and predicted victory for the tobacco makers.

But the San Francisco jury did not see it that way. The jury also awarded Whiteley $1.47 million in compensatory damages, and her husband a quarter of a million dollars for loss of companionship. The plaintiff, who just underwent brain surgery, appeared only briefly during the trial, her testimony introduced through videotape. (She is not expected to live through the year.)

The judge allowed the introduction of over 1,000 industry documents to support the plaintiff’s claim that the company knew of the addictive and dangerous nature of cigarettes, yet withheld that information from the public. Excuse me. But what about the warning label: The Surgeon General has determined cigarette smoking is hazardous to your health?

No matter what the industry claimed, or what information the industry withheld from the public, the warning labels were not ambiguous. Doesn’t Whiteley bear responsibility for having taken up the habit? After all, she began smoking at 13. Isn’t that illegal?

Punitive damages say to a defendant, “You’ve been really, really bad.” But how much more punishment must “Big Tobacco” endure? The heavily-taxed product more than offsets smoking-related costs incurred by taxpayers.

Tobacco companies recently entered into a $246 billion settlement with 50 states. In California, voters approved Proposition 10, to add yet another tobacco tax, this one to provide funds for “child development.” The government long ago pressured cigarette companies from advertising on television or radio.

Still, the post-warning label lawsuits come, with the added wrinkle of accusing the tobacco companies of deceit. A tobacco industry analyst said, “The industry has not yet demonstrated that it can win a smoker’s claim when that claim includes an allegation of fraud and uses internal industry documents to back up that allegation.” But what has the industry’s alleged fraud got to do with the decision to smoke? And, even before the warning labels, many assumed cigarette smoking dangerous.

A 1906 short story by O. Henry referred to cigarettes as “coffin nails.” My father, who also began smoking at age 13, quit in the late ’50s, after his doctor advised him to do so.

Northwestern University Professor Richard Daynard, who heads a research project on the tobacco industry, said about the verdict, “This really reflects a total collapse of the industry’s ability to defend itself in court.”

No kidding.

Interestingly, few seemed concerned about government deception. What of the government’s claim that 400,000 Americans die annually from tobacco-related disease? Robert A. Levy and Rosalind B. Marimont, researchers experienced in math and statistics, blasted the government’s claim in their report, “Lies, Damned Lies & 400,000 Smoking-Related Deaths.” They said, ” … if a smoker who is obese; has a family history of high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart problems; and never exercises dies of a heart attack, the government attributes his death to smoking alone.” They call the actual figure “neither known nor knowable with precision.”

How likely is it that this 40-year-old plaintiff died from cigarette smoking? Not very. Levy and Marimont say, “The unvarnished fact is that children do not die of tobacco-related diseases, correctly determined. If they smoke heavily during their teens, they may die of lung cancer in their old age, 50 or 60 years later, assuming lung cancer is still a threat then.”

So, smokers, start your lawsuits! No matter when you smoked, no matter how aggressively the labels warned about the hazards of smoking, whether you smoked marijuana, abused other drugs, or had a problem with alcohol — if you smoked and you have cancer, nail ’em!

Well, it’s time to turn a lemon into lemonade. I bought a toaster several months ago. The box contained a warning label the size of the Manhattan telephone book. Among other things, the label warned the user not to put a finger into a plugged-in toaster, especially when in use.

So I’m gonna go home, plug in my toaster, and jam my finger into it.

Then, I’m calling my lawyer.

This editorial is made available through Creator's Syndicate. Best-selling author, radio and TV talk show host, Larry Elder has a take-no-prisoners style, using such old-fashioned things as evidence and logic. His books include: The 10 Things You Can’t Say in America, Showdown: Confronting Bias, Lies and the Special Interests That Divide America, and What’s Race Got to Do with It? Why it’s Time to Stop the Stupidest Argument in America,.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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