Why I empathize with tobacco litigants

Public Health 10 Comments

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.

10 Responses to “Why I empathize with tobacco litigants”

  1. Jake Says:
    July 22nd, 2009 at 9:52 am

    Tobacco is always going to be a touchy subject.. living in a county/state that has made HUGE amounts of money from tobacco over the years, I hear these type arguments all the time.

    I smoked for probably 12 years or so and haven’t smoked in over 20 years.. I’m glad I stopped! I respect peoples decision to smoke, but I don’t really enjoy being around it.

    But, the tobacco industry was and still is huge and I think they knew exactly what they were doing when the didn’t tell the public the harm in tobacco. Yet I’ve heard the arguments that the research wasn’t available during those “early” years.. I say BOLOGNA haha

    Jakes last blog post..Our New Favorite Winery! Round Peak Vineyards!

  2. Andrew Says:
    July 22nd, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    Jake,

    First of all, congratulations on being free of cigarettes for twenty years – no doubt a very significant achievement on your part.

    With the exception of minors, I too respect people’s right to smoke. Adults of proper legal age should have every right to make their own assessment with regard to the risks associated with smoking and then make their own decision as to whether or not they wish to smoke in spite of such risks.

    I am curious – given that you live in an area where there is a lot of tobacco production, do you think that attitudes with regard to these types of debates tend to be different in your region than in regions where tobacco production does not represent such a big industry?

    I too, fully respect people’s decision to smoke, provided we are referring to adults of proper legal age.

    Andrews last blog post..Why I empathize with tobacco litigants

  3. Brad Shorr Says:
    July 22nd, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    Andrew, I think it was John Locke who said a free economy must have a strong moral foundation. This cigarette issue is a perfect example of what happens when profit trumps ethics. Whether the tobacco companies actively quashed research or simply turned a blind eye makes no difference.

    Brad Shorrs last blog post..A PC Guy Goes to the Apple Store

  4. Andrew Says:
    July 22nd, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    Brad,

    Mr. Locke would appear to be right on the money there. I believe fully in a relatively free economic system, but with freedom must come responsibility, and people and organizations who are free to compete within the modern marketplace surely have some form of moral and ethical obligations which accompany that freedom of choice.

    Unfortunately, as you say, profit considerations clearly over-rode ethical considerations within the tobacco industry with regard to truthfulness about claims regarding the health impact of their merchandise.

    Andrews last blog post..Why I empathize with tobacco litigants

  5. Jake Says:
    July 23rd, 2009 at 8:49 am

    @ Andrew – I would say the attitudes are different.. And that feeling comes from the conversations you hear that

    “tobacco built this town and now they want to ban it”

    Those type comments..

  6. Andrew Says:
    July 23rd, 2009 at 9:12 am

    Jake,

    Yes, I could imagine that many folks from a tobacco producing region might see things a little differently when compared to those who are not from a tobacco producing region.

  7. Fred H Schlegel Says:
    July 23rd, 2009 at 10:40 am

    Mixed feelings here. I’m against the habit but pro personal choice and responsibility. It’s hard to understand someone not getting the idea that smoking was dangerous given the warning labels here in the States. (Although I did see a study that indicated for some the warning labels made the cigs more attractive… go figure). My biggest problem with the legal issues to date is that only a portion of the money extracted from the tobacco companies here actually goes towards health and cessation programs for smokers… most of it gets thrown in the general fund. This makes government reliant on making sure smoking continues so that a strong source of revenue doesn’t dry up.

  8. Andrew Says:
    July 24th, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Hi Fred,

    With regard to your last point, if that is indeed the case in your country (and if you say it is, then I’m sure that it is), then it would certainly appear that you have a more than reasonable cause for concern in this regard. Pouring money from tobacco firms into the general government coffers would certainly seem to create an incentive for governments to keep the industry going.

    I was not previously familiar with the idea of warning labels making cigarettes more attractive. I am more familiar with the idea that notices (supplied by tobacco firms) regarding the sale of cigarettes to minors actually making cigarettes more attractive to children by promoting the habit as an ‘adult’ thing, although I am not particularly certain whether or not this is indeed the case.

  9. Natural Says:
    July 31st, 2009 at 5:56 am

    responsibility is on both sides, but no one makes anyone buy anything and no one forces anyone to smoke. we ALL know smoking is bad for the body regardless of what cigarette companies tell us. it’s up to people to do their OWN due dilligence about what they put or take into their body. regardless of the year, inhaling smoke into the lungs? tobacco? not good. actually tabacco was used for something good, i forget what it is, but it has been missued.

    .02

  10. Andrew Says:
    July 31st, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    Hi Natural,

    Certainly, however able the tobacco industry has been in the past to plant doubt in the minds of smokers with regard to the issue of whether the health effects of smoking were really that bad or not, the potential health risks associated with smoking are now well known. Anyone who acquired the habit today would do so knowing full well about the dangers involved, and should certainly be expected to assume full responsibility for the consequences of their own actions.

    I am not so sure that the issue is as clear cut, however, with regard to those who acquired the habit as far back as the sixties and seventies. It seems from what I have read that back then, the tobacco industry gave repeated public assurances that cigarettes were not dangerous, and I could certainly imagine that there would have been some cases back then where individual smokers were indeed somewhat confused about the health implications of cigarettes as a result of this conduct.

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