Tobacco and personal responsibility

Posted: Wednesday, July 19, 2000

I do not like tobacco. I choose not to smoke, inhale, chew or dip it. But the Florida court decision awarding $144.8 billion in punitive damages to 500,000 smokers is another example of big government attempting to save us from ourselves.

The federal government has subsidized tobacco growers at the same time it has sought to dissuade people from using tobacco. It has banned advertising of this legal product from radio and television and required explicit warnings on cigarette packaging, billboards and magazine ads.

The argument of tobacco's enemies is that because tobacco companies withheld information about the hazards and addictive properties of their products, they are liable for the enormous damages a jury has inflicted upon them.

What ought to bother us as Americans is that, once again, government has intruded on individual choice. There are plenty of things not good for us and plenty more whose manufacturers make questionable assertions in their advertising. Dueling ads make claims that one product is superior to a competitor's. The choice is left to the consumer.

If the government will now determine whether a company deserves to be punished when people use its legal products, we might reasonably ask where this will stop. Trial lawyers - the really big winners in these class action lawsuits - will find this big government precedent too inviting to stop with tobacco. They will hear the siren call of many other addictions crying out for judicial remedy and big profits for themselves.

Gambling is a serious addiction for some. Will gambling establishments be sued by addicts who have lost their rent and food money? Casinos advertise good times, but what if a gambler loses his shirt and claims his addiction, caused by the ``false advertising'' of the house, is liable for the injury done to his wallet?

Some people who drink alcohol become addicted. Should they be allowed to sue the liquor companies who also sell a legal product? If they become drunk drivers who injure or kill someone else, should the injured party or relatives of the dead be allowed to sue the distilleries for damages?

Thanks to Supreme Court rulings which have struck down laws aimed at controlling pornography, increasing numbers of people are becoming addicted to porn. If a marriage is ruined, or if someone is raped and the rapist testifies it was porn that made him do it, should injured parties be allowed to seek a judgment against the companies which produced it and the women and men who appeared in it?

Credit card debt is at a record high. If someone is forced to declare bankruptcy and claims an addiction to credit cards, why could the ``victims'' not be able to sue the card companies and the banks which issue them? In many cases they offer the cards unsolicited (``You have been pre-approved''), even sending cards to college students who usually have no credit record. Why couldn't it be argued that the banks and card companies, like big tobacco, are attempting to addict people at a young age?

Some people suffer heart problems from their food addictions. Should fast food companies which advertise high-in-fat hamburgers be sued when a customer suffers arterial blockage and dies from a heart attack?

The Florida court ruling again demonstrates the nanny tendencies of our government. You are not capable of making decisions without government assistance. You do not have the will power or moral competence to break your addictions, so the government will punish corporations, while saying nothing about your moral weakness. The government and various activists believe we are all actual or potential victims of giant corporations who are so much more intelligent and sophisticated than we are that the Marlboro man or Joe Camel can persuade people who know better to suck the chemical equivalent of bus fumes into their lungs with no fear they will suffer harm.

If the government had not been so insistent in tearing down the moral code that used to protect us in this country, perhaps more people might be able to judge right from wrong for themselves.

Cal Thomas is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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