Personal Responsibility Vanishes

Joseph Perkins

Way back in 1964 U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry issued a landmark report in which concluded that, based on medical studies, smoking could cause cancer.

Ls the nation’s smokers fail to get the message, federal lawmakers required that every pack, every carton, every container of cigarettes sold throughout the fair land be emblazoned with the famous warning – "Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous To Your Health."

Fast forward 35 years to earlier this month, during which a jury in Miami declared that tobacco companies are guilty of producing a "defective product" that causes lung cancer, emphysema and other related illnesses.

The verdict, in the first class-action lawsuit by smokers to go to trial, exposes cigarette makers to $200 billion or so in damages to as many as 500,000 Florida smokers.

The Florida class action almost certainly will lead to copycat lawsuits in other states as trail lawyers rush to reach their long arms into the industry’s deep pockets.

But it’s all in the name of justice, said victorious (at least temporarily) trail lawyer Stanley Rosenblatt, who asserts that the tobacco industry has clearly demonstrated a "rampant and cynical long-standing pattern of fraud."

Indeed, the six jurors sitting on the trial in Miami were persuaded that cigarette makers mislead about the dangers of smoking.

But, really, did those half-million or so Florida smokers think that their habit was good for their health? Did they think that federally required warning labels on cigarettes – which again, have been affixed to every pack, every carton of smokes for the past 35 years – were just fiction?

The fact is that those Florida smokers knew very well the risks of their habit. And they knowingly and willingly chose - repeat chose – to gamble that they would not become statistics – the one-half of lifelong smokers (according to the Centers for Disease Control) who contract lung cancer, emphysema or related diseases.

When their 50-50 gambles turned out unfavorable, when they contracted putative smoking-related diseases, the Florida smokers portrayed themselves as victims of the nefarious tobacco industry. And they went to court seeking payment for the choices they blithely made, the risks they freely took.

Rosenblatt and his fellow trial lawyers were only too happy to urge them on, to sign them up to their massive class-action suits against the tobacco industry.

Not because the trail lawyers truly believe that the 500,000 Florida plaintiffs were duped into smoking by Joe Camel or the Marlboro Man, but because the massive class-action lawsuit represents as much as $80 billion in contingency fees(if and when cigarette makers cough up the potential $200 billion or so in damages).

That’s how perverse the civil justice system in this country has become. The courtroom is no longer a hallowed place of justice. In some cases, it’s a little more than a casino, where plaintiffs all-too-often recruited by avaricious trial lawyers, spin the wheel of fortune hoping to win some mutibillion-dollar jackpot

In matters not, really, who the target is. Today, it’s a cigarette companies, breast-implant makers and gun manufacturers. Tomorrow, who knows? The targets could easily be automakers or beer companies or drug manufacturers or fast-food chains.

For all these consumer products pose certain risks. Indeed there are 50,000 auto-related deaths in America each year. There are more than 100,000 alcohol-related deaths.

There’s no telling how many deaths are attributable to downright misuse of prescription drugs. And one can hardly wait to hear of some "scientific" study ascribing so many annual cases of ateriosclerosis to fatty, fast-food diets.

Indeed, it’s not hard to envision, say auto execs trying to persuade a jury that it’s not the industry’s fault that so many drivers die on the nation’s highways and byways despite air bags and other safety features automakers install in their vehicles.

Nor is it hard to imagine, say, beer or wine or liquor execs trying to explain why their industry should not be held liable because so many people drink themselves to death.

We are a nation that holds sacred our rights as individuals. However, far too many of us are unwilling, apparently, to accept personal responsibility when rights we exercise – to smoke, to drink, to have wanton sex, whatever – prove deleterious.

No one forced Florida smokers to take up their unhealthful habit. And while no one wishes them the ailments form which they suffer, they hardly merit a mutibillion-dollar court award for the imprudent choices they made.

Joseph Perkins is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.