Under normal circumstances, I would not have a great deal of empathy for litigation on the part of consumers who suffer adverse consequences as a result of their own consumption related habits and decisions.
But there is one group of litigants for whom I have a considerable degree of empathy – tobacco litigants. I have a considerable degree of empathy for those who acquired the habit of smoking perhaps during the 1960s or 1970s, and are now trying to sue tobacco firms for compensation as a result of adverse health conditions with regard to which their consumption of tobacco is believed to represent a significant contributing factor.
Why – simply because of the way that the tobacco industry so blatantly mislead the public with about the health implications of smoking over the course of several decades.
To be sure, consumers are responsible for their own decisions ..
Under one plausible viewpoint, consumers who have smoked cigarettes for decades have only themselves to blame for any smoking related health problems which they may contract.
Such a viewpoint asserts that the scientific community had long warned about the dangers associated with cigarettes, and that those who chose of their own free will to continue the habit in spite of the known risks must take responsibility for any adverse health related consequences of their actions.
Though I do not agree, there does appear to be some degree of validity to this argument. Personally, I was not around during the 1960’s and early 70s, and I am therefore not in much of a position to make a great deal of informed comment about whether the dangers of smoking were generally well understood during that time. But from what I have read in Wikipedia, it would appear to me that the global scientific community has been actively warning about the link between smoking and lung cancer from as far back as the 1950s (refer article).
For this reason, there would be a somewhat reasonable argument (though I don’t agree) that those who adopted the habit should have been more than aware that their behavior was not safe.
.. but the industry also had a responsibility to tell the truth
But I cannot agree with this viewpoint, simply because of the role which the tobacco industry played in terms of creating confusion about the health impact of cigarettes by repeatly making blatant misrepresentations with regard to the scientific evidence on the subject.
It is a well documented fact that big tobacco gave repeated public assurances that consumption of tobacco related products was safe, even despite mounting opinion to the contrary amongst the scientific community. It is almost certain that by doing this, they created doubt in the minds of some smokers as to the question of whether or not smoking was expected to have a serious impact upon one’s health.
(Click here to watch a video showing Statements by the tobacco industry about the health issues of smoking)
This is one of the key differences between tobacco litigants and some other forms of consumer related complaints. McDonalds, for example, have never to my knowledge denied that eating a Big Mac every day would not represent a particularly healthy habit from a dietary viewpoint. Nor to my knowledge have casinos ever denied that excessive gambling behavior can result in serious financial, personal and emotional consequences.
But big tobacco most certainly assured smokers that cigarettes were safe – assurances which consumers surely had some right to place a degree of reliance upon.
In doing so, the tobacco industry failed to fulfill one of their fundamental basic fundamental obligations as a manufacturer – to provide truthful and accurate information with regard to the health and safety of their merchandise. They also opened themselves up to what I would have thought would have been a more than fair case for compensation claims from consumers who have suffered adverse health related conditions for which there is substantial reason to believe that consumption of cigarettes represents a significant contributing factor.