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Somebody is blowing smoke in latest tobacco lawsuit



Published: Mon, April 1, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



An Oregon jury has awarded $150 million to the family of a woman who died of lung cancer, even though she's switched from regular cigarettes to filtered "low-tar" cigarettes.

It seems she believed -- or at least her family's lawyers got the jury to believe -- that the cigarette companies had told her such cigarettes would be better for her.

And who knows? Maybe they were. Maybe if she'd have stuck with her old brand, she'd have died 10 years earlier. More likely, if she'd have heeded the warning printed on the side of even the lowest tar cigarettes, she'd have given up the habit -- and be alive today.

For decades this newspaper has taken anti-cigarette editorial positions. We've written screeds on the dangers of tobacco and the duplicity of tobacco purveyors. We strongly supported spending all the money received by Ohio from the federal tobacco lawsuit on anti-smoking and pro-health campaigns. That's an argument we lost when the economy went south, the budget got tight and politicians in Columbus saw the tobacco money as a windfall that could help them avoid the politically unpopular prospect of raising taxes.

But no matter how strongly we may feel that cigarette smoking is the wrong choice for people to make, it is a choice. And it is a choice fraught with dangers that anyone who can read a simple sentence should recognize.

The suit: In the Oregon case, a jury ordered Philip Morris to pay $150 million in punitive damages to the estate of Michele Schwarz, who died of lung cancer at age 53 in 1999 after smoking low-tar Merit cigarettes.

The company argued, unsuccessfully, that Schwarz, who worked for many years in the medical office of her physician husband, was well aware of the dangers of cigarette smoke.

How has our system of law become so out of touch with reality that a jury can't bring itself to hold a person such as Schwarz responsible for her own unwise choices? Why should a physician who couldn't convince his wife to quit smoking for her own good and that of her family be enriched by that failure?

Schwarz was 19 years old in 1965 when the first health warning by the attorney general of the United States began appearing on cigarette packages. Virtually every pack she ever legally purchased contained a warning.

Nonetheless, she made the tragic decision to disregard that warning. But if she was capable of choosing between brands, she was equally capable of choosing between right and wrong, between smart and foolhardy. Too bad the jury couldn't see that.




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