Smoking: Who pays?


There is great irony in the fact that cigarette makers, after having resisted for years the placing of mandatory warnings on their products, now seek to use those very labels to escape liability for the immense damage that smoking causes.

Monday the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether the presence of the warning, first put on cigarette packages 25 years ago, sufficiently forewarns smokers that they are endangering their lives by smoking.

It is a difficult question, to be sure. It seems reasonable that in today's climate, if a reasonably well-informed adult chooses to begin smoking, then that person can hardly hold the cigarette manufacturer responsible for any resulting damage to his or her health. But when a kid starts smoking at the age of 14 and, by the time he or she is an adult, is hopelessly hooked on what former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop called "the most addictive drug" of nicotine, that's another matter again. Surely the cigarette makers have some responsibility to such a person.

If the Supreme Court reverses the prevailing legal protective climate for the cigarette makers, we can be certain the price of cigarettes would increase enormously in order to pay for the thousands of lawsuits that would certainly come; $5-a-pack cigarettes would not be beyond the realm of possibility. That could have the beneficial practical effect of pricing cigarettes out of the reach of children.

The problem is, litigation is not an efficient way to assess damages. It is time-consuming, and there are lawyers' fees.

But there is, in our view, a far more efficient and equitable approach to the problem, and that is to determine with statistical precision the health cost of cigarette smoking -- costs which are borne by smokers and non-smokers alike through employee insurance programs or through Medicaid -- and then levy a federal tax on cigarettes in exactly that amount. That way, people who "choose" to smoke can pay the price for their choice -- even if it does mean $5-a-pack cigarettes.

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