Editor's column:Displaced aggression Featured

9:40am EDT July 22, 2002

Look out, Anthony-Thomas Candy Co. You could be next.

Those with an incurable sweet tooth and a waistline to prove it could take you for millions in court. After all, it’s your fault they’re fat, so you’d better be ready to pony up for the medical bills they’ve incurred for weight-induced health problems.

Sound ridiculous? Of course it does. But isn’t that essentially what’s happening to the tobacco industry when smokers take cigarette companies to court and win? Consider the recent $12.7 million ruling in Miami against big tobacco for “causing” the cigarette-related health problems of three smokers.

Just whose fault is it that these people took up smoking? They’re adults, after all. They have to be legal adults to buy cigarettes. Presumably adults can think for themselves. Too bad their thoughts turned to finding someone else to blame — and pay — for their mistake rather than living with the consequences of their own choices.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending the harmful products tobacco companies produce. I, personally, couldn’t sleep at night if I marketed something as knowingly dangerous as that. I do, however, think it’s equally wrong to expect tobacco companies to shoulder the legal blame for what happens to its customers. Those who choose to smoke need to take responsibility for their actions.

It’s not like the dangers of smoking are unknown to the public. We’re beaten over the head almost daily with campaigns that preach the ill effects of tobacco use. Every package of cigarettes — not to mention every cigarette advertisement — clearly warns us of the health risks.

What more can a tobacco company do? The smoker is making a conscious choice to ignore those warnings.

I think we forget sometimes that tobacco companies are businesses, too. What do we expect from them? The products they make are perfectly legal — even if offensive to some. It’s their job to sell cigarettes. They’re not going to start sponsoring smoking cessation classes. That would be like asking Graeter’s Ice Cream to promote Weight Watchers. What business in its right mind would support something that could put it out of business?

Sure, some beer companies underwrite the “Know when to say when” and “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” campaigns to curb irresponsible alcohol consumption. That makes sense for them. To do otherwise would be to risk losing a loyal customer to a car wreck or alcohol poisoning. Who wants that?

Funny how you don’t see patients with liver failure going after Budweiser or Miller Brewing for damages. With the legal precedent set by the Miami case this spring, however, we soon could.

Judges and juries need to realize tobacco companies aren’t holding guns to the heads of their customers, forcing them to smoke. This is a choice the customer makes.

He or she needs to be held responsible for the consequences of that choice — no matter how horrific.

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.