Suing Big Tobacco


The New York Times said in an editorial Friday:

THE $51.5 million judgment against Philip Morris Cos. by a California jury could well trigger a slew of individual lawsuits by people who have gotten sick or died from smoking. The $1.5 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages awarded to a 53-year-old smoker who has inoperable lung cancer may still be overturned on appeal, as have verdicts in the past that have favored smokers.

But many plaintiffs will be encouraged by this case and other recent developments. President Clinton's decision to sue the tobacco industry for billions of dollars spent treating tobacco-related illnesses under Medicare and other federal medical programs will compound the industry's problems.

New evidence that has been unearthed in state lawsuits shows that the industry tried to conceal the health hazards of smoking. Juries that are faced with such information may be less apt than earlier juries to blame smokers, and more eager to punish cigarette makers for fraud and deception. Even if big verdicts are reduced or overturned, simply defending hundreds of cases could be financially debilitating for the manufacturers.

The prospect of fighting endless lawsuits could cause the industry to seek a deal with Congress. Such a deal could settle the potentially enormous federal claims, but it must not give the industry immunity from other lawsuits, which remain a useful hammer to compel responsible behavior. The industry already has agreed to pay 46 states $206 billion over the next 25 years to recover their Medicaid costs.

Last year's tobacco bill would have granted the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco and nicotine, greatly restricted marketing practices that attract teen-age smokers and required the industry to pay penalties if youth smoking rates do not go down in the next decade. Those elements ought to be part of any new legislative proposal.

Pub Date: 2/15/99

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