A Florida jury has awarded Cynthia Robinson, widow of a longtime smoker who died of lung cancer, $23 billion in punitive damages and $16 million in compensatory damages, one of the largest verdicts ever against a tobacco company. Check out that “punitive damages” amount and the message is clear – tobacco companies will be answerable for past, present and future conduct when it comes to tobacco marketing.
“The environment today is completely different than it was in the ’50’s and ’60’s, when Robinson’s husband was alive,” said Christopher Chestnut, one the plaintiff’s attorneys. “Reynolds knew its product was addictive, but it didn’t market it correctly. The company lied and marketed cigarettes as safe, yet they contained countless harmful chemicals.’
I am a capitalist, and a happy one. I love a free market want good companies to get as rich as they possibly can, because a healthy company in the black can hire employees and provide them a good living to raise families and/or contribute to society. The sky’s the limit, in my mind, and I am against overly regulating business that in effect puts it in a stranglehold, slashing profits and miring them in legal actions that drain resources and cut into the bottom line. But lying to the consumer, telling them that a product is safe when it is not, the way Big Tobacco did in the 1950’s and beyond? No way.
The plaintiff’s husband was smoking in the 1950’s and 60’s, when tobacco was actively marketed as safe. If this case were brought against the tobacco giant on behalf of a client that developed cancer after smoking in today’s modern age, or even ten years ago, I would not be so quick to defend the plaintiff – there has been so much information on the hazards of smoking that you would have to live under a rock to not be aware that smoking lines your lungs with chemicals and will probably give you lung cancer, leading to a painful death.
But in the 1950’s and 60’s, television was king and what savvy marketers told you was what you believed. I had a crush on the Marlboro Man, for heaven’s sake.
All of us had relatives that smoked – my dad, for a numbers of years, was a smoker – and I was, too. We can speak to how addictive this product is, and it remains one of the proudest accomplishments of my life that I successfully quit smoking sixteen years ago (after many painful and dismaying attempts to do so). If I had the support of television, print and radio advertising telling me that it was not harmful? Well, I’d be enjoying my current cup of coffee with a Merit yellow pack cigarette.
Reynolds’ vice president and assistant general counsel said that the damages in Robinson’s case were “grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law.”
“This verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness and is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented,” Jeffrey Raborn said. “We plan to file post-trial motions with the trial court promptly and are confident that the court will follow the law and not allow this runaway verdict to stand.”
Well Mr. Raborn, I hope you are wrong, because tobacco kills and kids are among those most at risk. You must be responsible for the dangers of your product, and let us make free and informed decisions on whether we will partake of your product. Or Americans will continue to light you up — in court.
Deirdre Reilly has written one humor book, and authored a syndicated family life column for Gatehouse Media for 13 years. She has won a Massachusetts Press Award for humor, her op-eds have been published in the Boston Herald and The Hartford Courant, and she has had short fiction published in literary journals. Deirdre was raised in Columbia, Md., and now lives outside Boston, Ma. She enjoys outdoor pursuits, and is obsessed with the care and happiness of a retired carriage horse named Nello that she bought for a few hundred dollars on a menopausal whim.