I Never Dream of Nicotine

"Addiction" Cannot be Weighed, Measured, or Lovingly Caressed--But Trial Lawyers Can Profit From It

Ted Roberts is a freelance writer in Huntsville, Alabama.

Such is the intensity of tobacco litigation that every day somewhere in this great nation there’s a judge, lawyer, or juror pondering the evils of the weed. The sun never sets on tobacco litigation. Tobacco is addictive, say the trial lawyers. All I know is that if this product is addictive, it’s horribly flawed because at least 40 million Americans have shrugged off its clutches and turned to Lifesavers, chewing gum, or an extra slice of pie for dessert. Some narcotic.

Even I, well described by Oscar Wilde’s aphorism as a man who can resist anything but temptation, kicked Joe Camel, the Marlboro Man, and Herbert Tareyton (remember him?) out of my fraternity of friends. That was 17 years ago. And contrary to the wisdom of the streets, my dreams are void of the perfumed scent of cigs, but full of Chateaubriand with mushroom sauce, voluptuous women who think I’m Brad Pitt, and stocks that triple and pay a special surprise dividend in the first hour of ownership. I mean I never dream of nicotine. Today I’m as nicotine-free as a newly born babe.

But we have legions of state attorneys general suing Big Tobacco because the weed that eases life’s hurly-burly is “addictive.”

Cigarettes are addictive and Budweiser isn’t? The Bud Man is next in the lawyers’ sights. If I were the king of Anheuser-Busch, I’d be looking at diversification into a line of bottled barley soups-nonalcoholic, of course.

The vultures of state governments smell carrion. We claim, say the attorneys general of 20 states, that because of Big Tobacco–not the smoker–our medical bills have been astronomical. And when the states collect, do we taxpayers get a refund? Nope. Is it not our money? Who is the state if not me? Where’s my check?

So, smokers’ ills cost the state medical plan many dollars. But hasn’t the state’s lottery plan cost me and my fellow citizens many dollars? In the latter case it was the state’s intention to suck out of my wallet more money than the state lottery put into it. Intent is nine-tenths of the law, say my trial-lawyer friends. Intent is a huge legal discriminator when we talk sentencing and punitive damage. The states, with their lopsided lottery, intended to violate me economically. Can I sue? Not in this world. And maybe not in the next, since there’ll be few trial lawyers in Heaven, where I’ll renew my acquaintance with Herbert Tareyton, the Marlboro Man, and Joe Camel. Can’t hurt me there.

The simple truth is that smoking is fun–a small bonfire of happiness–and though we know it’s an ally of the old bony guy with the sickle, we’re hoping and praying that we can have our smokes and our life, too. Whistling past the graveyard is a tenderly human delusion. Don’t we all have a granddad or uncle who puffed his pipe for 60 years and hung out until he was 84?

Yes, but smokes are bad for kids, you say. But, so are the lessons we teach with our lawsuits. Our obsession with addiction tells our children that there are temptations in life that will turn your backbone into cherry Jell-O. You can’t resist. So don’t even start. And we tell them that we are no more responsible for our own actions than a cat licking milk out of a cereal bowl. This is a curriculum more deadly than hemlock and much more damaging than a smoke.

But the courtroom industry loves those gargantuan awards. The lawyers go after punitive damages with all the addictive zeal they attribute to victimized smokers. Recent business headlines announced that the tobacco industry would appeal a $145 billion judgment against it by a Florida jury. One-hundred-forty-five billion of anything, including dollar bills, reaches from here to the moon more than once. One-hundred-forty-five billion silver dollars rivals the weight of Hoover Dam. And though I haven’t done the calculation, I’m reasonably certain that if the award were paid in silver dollars, you would need ten of those monstrous dump trucks they use for dam building to haul away your loot. In fact, 145 billion silver dollars would plug up the gorge in the Yangtze River that the Chinese are now trying to fill. They would have done better joining the Florida class-action suit and using their award as fill.

Lethal Addiction?

The smokers’ attorney, Stanley Rosenblatt, who weighs about 450 silver dollars, does not think that 145 billion is excessive. He laments that people have died “as a result of being addicted to this product.” This is a class-action suit wherein hundreds of thousands of plaintiffs hit a jackpot whose lever was pulled by only three people. In other words, it’s the antipodal position of taxation without representation. This is remuneration without obligation. No risk, no cost, no work. Sign a form and you’ve got a free lottery ticket. Somebody goes to court, but you stay home–light a Marlboro, pop the top on a Michelob, and wait for the phone to ring. The lawyers have learned how to virtually stuff the whole darn state in the courtroom.

This Florida award is granted to individual smokers. It’s entirely separate from the quest for funds by the states. The success of the plaintiffs, be they individuals or states, has resulted from the assumption that the weed–in whatever form–is irresistible. As I say, the hinge that swings the verdict is that word “addiction”–a curious phenomenon. Evidently, it is an invisible component of the human soul-body union that has no physiological essence whatsoever. It cannot be weighed, or measured, or lovingly caressed by the fingers like silver dollars. It is our 21st-century version of the vampires, witches, and spooks of mythology who haunted mankind’s uninformed past. Demon soul-stealers. You’d think they would be hooted out of the courtroom by a jury of mentally able citizens.

But no. Many a lawsuit-besides the tobacco litigation-hangs on the demonic theft of the body from its true owner. The villain: addiction–a vampire impregnable to crosses, wooden stakes, silver bullets or Yale Law School defense lawyers. And we laugh at the witch trials of Salem?

Today, in the enlightened 21st century, trial lawyers realize the power of these demons.

So, from dusty tombs emblazoned with ritual inscriptions, the trial lawyers resuscitate them, re-label them as addictions, and introduce them into the courtroom. They have made enough money to buy Transylvania and turn it into a refuge for retired vampires and old succubuses who no longer work a six-day week in the hearts of cigarette-smoking Floridians. They have learned that the pockets of Big Tobacco are deeper than the purses of black-gowned old ladies who like cats.

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