Big Tobacco continues to be whittled down in the American legal system. The latest shaving flew off last week when a state jury in Miami awarded three former smokers millions of dollars in compensatory damages.
That ruling was not in itself a major blow to the tobacco companies. Rather, it's what it portends. This is the first time a class-action suit has succeeded against cigarettemakers. The three smokers in this suit were representative of hundreds of thousands of Floridians who may also have a health claim against the tobacco industry.
All those claims could come to bear as the case moves on to punitive damages. Billions of dollars could be levied against the companies at that stage. Some firms could face bankruptcy.
That prospect has caused some curious ramifications. State attorneys general who won a $246 billion settlement of their own health-costs case against Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, et al. see a horrifying possibility: Their cash fountain could dry up if the companies have to shoulder class-action payouts as well.
Officials and politicians in Florida, and elsewhere probably, are scrambling to change the rules for class-action suits in order to head off a premature draining of tobacco bank accounts. Not long ago, many of these same people were cheering on antitobacco litigants.
This underscores, again, that the drive against tobacco is not, alas, guided just by public-spiritedness. There's much of that, to be sure. But many lawyers, state officials, and, yes, some plaintiffs, have an eye fixed on the gold. Greed all too easily enters in.
The power of Big Tobacco, economic and political, should fade. The moral crusade to break the addictive hold of tobacco on millions should go forward. It would be a shame, however, if that essentially high-minded effort should recede into a wrestling match over who gets the biggest share of tobacco's dwindling dollars.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society