Yet another successful lawsuit against a tobacco company, one that resulted in a jury’s awarding the widow of a tobacco smoker more than $23 billion because of her husband’s premature death, means that it is apropos to revisit the subject of tobacco and a free society.
A jury last month in Escambia County (Pensacola), Florida, after a four-week trial and a fifteen-hour deliberation, awarded Cynthia Robinson more than $16 million in compensatory damages and $23.6 billion in punitive damages after she sued tobacco company R.J. Reynolds on behalf of her late husband, Michael Johnson, 36, who died of lung cancer in 1996. He is reported to have been a chain smoker since age 13, and smoked until the day he died. His widow alleged that R.J. Reynolds had willfully concealed from her late husband the harmful effects and addictive nature of its product.
The case of Cynthia Robinson v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company harkens back to the Florida class action case of Engle v. Liggett Group Inc. (2006). In that case, which actually began in 1994, a trial judge certified a nationwide class of people with smoking-related diseases and family members of deceased smokers. A jury then awarded $12.7 million in compensatory damages to three individual plaintiffs and $145 billion to the class. An appeals court later limited the scope of the class to Florida residents. The Florida Supreme Court then decertified the class, “but ruled that class members could file individual suits using the Engle jury’s eight findings, including that smoking causes cancer, that nicotine is addictive, and that the tobacco companies sold defective and unreasonably dangerous cigarettes.
Robinson filed her individual lawsuit in 2008.
In 2013, the Florida Supreme Court re-approved its decision in Engle, making it easier for smokers or family members of deceased smokers to sue tobacco companies. In the case of Philip Morris USA Inc. et al. v. Douglas et al., the high court ruled in favor of James Douglas, who sued Philip Morris USA Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., and Liggett Group LLC for being responsible for the death of his wife, Charlotte, 62, who died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer in 2008. A jury had awarded him $5 million (later reduced to $2.5 million), but “the tobacco companies appealed, arguing that trial court erred in applying the phase I jury findings from Engle.” The Florida Supreme Court then rejected the tobacco companies’ argument that accepting as res judicata the eight phase I findings approved in Engle violated their due process rights, stating, “That certain elements of the prima facie case are established by the phase I findings does not violate the Engle defendants’ due process rights because they were parties to and had notice and opportunity to be heard in the class action where those elements were decided.”
The attorneys for Mrs. Robinson said that “the punitive damages are the largest of any individual case stemming from the original class action lawsuit.” Yet one attorney, Willie Gary, insisted that “the lawsuit’s goal was to stop tobacco companies from targeting children and young people with their advertising.” Jeffery Raborn, R.J. Reynolds’s vice president and assistant general counsel, called the damages “grossly excessive and impermissible under state and constitutional law.” He also said that “this verdict goes far beyond the realm of reasonableness and fairness, and is completely inconsistent with the evidence presented.”
According to the Pensacola News Journal, “Other Florida juries have hit tobacco companies with tens of millions of dollars in punitive damages in lawsuits stemming from the original class action lawsuit. Some large jury verdicts awarding tens of millions of dollars in damages to relatives of smokers have been upheld by appeals courts.”
In June of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected cigarette manufacturers’ appeals in court judgments to Florida smokers. Thus, we can expect to see more and more of these lawsuits against the big tobacco companies.
In a free society, that would not be so.
In contrast to the legislative, litigious, nanny-state, regulatory society that exists in the United States today, a free society — which used to exist in this country — is a society based not only on individual liberty and freedom, but also on personal accountability and responsibility.
Tobacco has been cultivated and smoked in the United States since colonial times. James Bonsack revolutionized the tobacco industry when he invented the first cigarette-rolling machine in 1880. Although, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “The percentage of adult Americans who smoke has declined since 1965 from 42.4% to 18.9% in 2011,” more than a billion people worldwide are estimated to use tobacco in some form.
Smoking tobacco has been recognized as a health hazard since at least the mid twentieth century. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers tobacco use to be “the single most preventable cause of death in the world today.” It estimates that tobacco use is responsible for “100 million deaths” during the twentieth century.
The CDC says about the health effects of tobacco,
Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of disease, disability, and death in the United States. Each year, an estimated 443,000 people die prematurely from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, and another 8.6 million live with a serious illness caused by smoking.
Yet, continues the CDC, “despite these risks, approximately 46.6 million U.S. adults smoke cigarettes.”
The United States was the first country to require health warnings on packs of cigarettes. The original warning label, appearing from 1966 to 1970, was “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health.” It was replaced from 1970 to 1985 with “Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined that Cigarette Smoking is Dangerous to Your Health.” Since 1985, cigarette packs have contained one of four surgeon-general’s warnings:
- SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy.
- SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health.
- SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Smoking By Pregnant Women May Result in Fetal Injury, Premature Birth, And Low Birth Weight.
- SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Cigarette Smoke Contains Carbon Monoxide.
Although the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 1999 (PL 111-31) gave the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the legal authority to regulate tobacco, the attempt by the agency to replace the four familiar, small text warnings that currently appear on cigarette packages with nine new and larger graphic warning labels was overruled by a federal court. Cigarette advertising on television and radio has been banned since 1971.
But regardless of how hazardous tobacco is to one’s health, regardless of how addictive smoking is, regardless of how tobacco companies have misled the public about their products, regardless of how governmental agencies and bureaucrats feel about tobacco, and regardless of how many Americans consider smoking to be a bad habit, a vice, or a sin, in a free society people are free to destroy their health, poison themselves, shorten their life, and engage in unpopular, bad, or sinful habits on their own property or the property of others with permission as long as they assume full responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
In a free society, it is not the business of government to require warning labels on cigarette packages; in a free society, it is not the business of government to require labels of any kind on any product.
In a free society, it is not the business of government to regulate the amount of nicotine in tobacco; in a free society, it is not the business of government to regulate the content of any substance.
In a free society, it is not the business of government to discourage or prevent anyone from smoking; in a free society, it is not the business of government to discourage or prevent anyone from engaging in any voluntary and peaceful activity.
In a free society, it is not the business of government to regulate the advertising of tobacco; in a free society, it is not the business of government to regulate the advertising of any product.
In a free society, it is not the business of government to institute smoking bans in bars or restaurants; in a free society, it is not the business of government to have anything to do with any voluntary and peaceful activity that occurs in any bar or restaurant.
In a free society, it is not the business of government to warn anyone about the dangers of smoking; in a free society, it is not the business of government to warn anyone about the dangers of any activity.
Tobacco use has a place in a free society. And so do anti-tobacco ads, smoking bans, the ostracism of smokers, and attempts to educate people about the dangers of smoking — but only if they are undertaken and paid for by individuals and organizations without government mandate, funding, oversight, or control.