State suit smokes out truth about tobacco

The tobacco industry — a $45 billion business plagued by recent lawsuits — is now in its third week of battling fraud and conspiracy charges in a Ramsey County District Court. The state of Minnesota, along with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, claim that the industry knew about the health risks and addictiveness of smoking, but concealed the evidence. They are suing the defendants, the nation’s major tobacco companies, for $1.77 billion to cover the treatment costs of smoking-related illnesses, plus unspecified punitive damages. The evidence, which comes primarily from internal company records, clearly supports the plaintiffs’ allegations. When the case ends, tobacco companies could be forced to pay again for their long-hidden wrongs.
In the opening weeks of the trial, the industry asserted that attorney-client privilege deters Blue Cross and the state from accessing secret documents. But last Tuesday, Mark Gehan, a special master appointed by the court, rejected much of this claim. He recommended that Judge Kenneth Fitzpatrick admit reports dealing with scientific research on tobacco as evidence. These documents, which Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III calls the “crown jewels” of the conspiracy, might further bolster the state’s case. However, even if they are not allowed, the 12-member jury will have sufficient alternate evidence to decide against tobacco.
Bennett LeBow, head of the nation’s smallest cigarette producer, Liggett Group, testified that cigarettes cause cancer and that nicotine is addictive. Now a defendant of Blue Cross only — after reaching an out-of-court settlement with the state — Liggett handed over industry documents that could seriously damage tobacco companies. For instance, it has been revealed that for more than 20 years, cigarette manufacturers have studied children as young as 14 as a part of their marketing and advertising strategies. In fact, during a 1974 company meeting at R.J. Reynolds, the board of directors was informed that the youth “represent tomorrow’s cigarette business.”
Adding to the plaintiffs’ case is testimony from several nicotine addiction experts. Dr. Richard Hurt, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Nicotine Dependence Center, stressed that industry documents confirmed that cigarette companies knew that their product was harmful and addictive. Moreover, they increased the nicotine levels to inhibit smokers from quitting.
According to Professor Channing Robertson, head of Stanford University’s chemical engineering department, company documents also show that the industry did considerable research on ammonia and acidity in cigarettes. This, he says, was done in the hope of adding more of the extremely addictive freebase nicotine to cigarettes.
To date, the tobacco industry has not publicly admitted that smoking is addictive and causes disease. But the evidence shows that it knew about the side effects and addictive nature of nicotine, facts the industry hid from the public. While individuals do bear some responsibility in choosing to smoke, cigarette companies must also be held accountable for the products they sell. As such, it is only just that they pay for their efforts to deceive the public, as well as the health care expenses they helped to create.