The knife that the Clinton administration plunged into the heart of the tobacco industry in the late 1990s still gets an occasional twist, and this week it came from a federal judge.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled Tuesday that tobacco companies must pay for and publish corrective statements saying that they lied about the dangers of smoking. There was, believe it or not, a time long gone when tobacco companies not only denied that smoking was dangerous, but actually suggested health benefits from firing one up. But the Surgeon General’s warning on pack of cigarettes first appeared in 1966 suggesting smoking “may be hazardous to your health” and then evolved to remove the uncertainty, making it clear to anyone who bothered to read the warning that smoking risks health problems and death.
For those who couldn’t or didn’t bother to read the warning, the coughing and watery eyes that followed that first draw off a cigarette should have been a hint that putting smoke into your lungs might not be a good idea.
But many Americans did, with self-reported smoking among American adults peaking in the mid-1950’s at about 45 percent, a rate that began to decline but was still at 40 percent at the end of the 1970s. Today, about 20 percent of Americans smoke, a rate that has been steady since about 2007.
We don’t know Kessler’s point. The tobacco industry is an easy target, but we are convinced that cigarette manufacturers didn’t plow new ground when they misled — or lied to — consumers. Plenty of advertising has done the same, and some with similarly deadly results.
Kessler’s ruling is part of a case the Clinton administration brought in 1999 under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The statements Kessler chose include five categories: adverse health effects of smoking; addictiveness of smoking and nicotine; lack of significant health benefit from smoking cigarettes marked as “low tar,” “light,” etc.; manipulation of cigarette design and composition to ensure optimum nicotine delivery; and adverse health effects of exposure to secondhand smoke.
Among the statements within those categories:
n “Smoking kills, on average, 1,200 Americans. Every day.”
n “Defendant tobacco companies intentionally designed cigarettes to make them more addictive.”
n “All cigarettes cause cancer, lung disease, heart attacks and premature death — lights, low tar, ultra lights and naturals. There is no safe cigarette.”
n “Secondhand smoke causes lung cancer and coronary heart disease in adults who do not smoke.”
None of this is new stuff, so we don’t see the 20 percent rate of American smokers dipping further, although we would wave any wand that would free the world of this sorry and addictive habit. Some folks are simply willing to risk cancer, heart disease and their ability to draw an easy breath — and it’s their choice in a free society, although the health consequences, including the cost, are passed on to others.
We see Kessler’s ruling as more evidence of a society that is increasingly embracing victimhood, which frees us to do as we place with the comfort of knowing that down the road, there will be someone else to blame.