Slaying the Puffing Dragon

It may seem lenient to slap a $145 billion penalty on an industry that has peddled destructive addiction for decades.

That jaw-dropping amount was decided by a Florida jury last week. (See story on page 1.) It was meant to send a stern message to the five largest tobacco companies that have engaged in seductive marketing of a deadly product, blatant lies about its safety, and undue influence on governments that fail to protect smokers.

The six members of this jury - a two-year assignment! - should be commended for their public spiritedness. They focused on the industry's fraud in selling a defective product and deception over its effects rather than on the choice of smokers to take up cigarettes.

They didn't believe the industry's argument that it had repented and is now open about its product's effects while also working against teenage smoking.

But is this really the best way to bring the tobacco industry to heel?

Trial lawyers won this Florida case using product-liability tort law. They won a $145 billion penalty that may be more than the industry's worth. Now lawyers in other states hope to win similar suits, creating legal chaos for a national problem that needs a unified solution. Class-action lawsuits are an unwieldy device for resolving such a large, long-lived problem.

This case arose, of course, in part because those fighting cigarette addiction felt helpless in seeking solutions from legislators, governors, and presidents. Still, the jury's penalty comes after the industry had already agreed to pay $246 billion to about 40 states to fight teenage smoking and pay for the treatment of smokers.

Obviously, Congress needs to do much more, such as regulating nicotine as a drug and running more antismoking ads for teenagers.

As this case heads for appeals that will likely reduce the penalty, the nation's elected leaders should take the jury's message and act together to help Americans make the choice to stop smoking or not start.

And the industry should not be left off the hook.

The question is: "Which hook?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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