It's time, fellow travelers, for another magical mystery tour through the tobacco fields. Today we begin in the middle of a glitzy ad for designer cigarettes and glide down past the sophisticated blonde in a backless dress until we land on the little white rectangle in the right-hand corner.
Here, we rest for a moment and read together the words: "SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy."
If this is like earlier tour groups, perhaps you never stopped at the sign before. Nevertheless, you probably assume that it was put there for the aid and protection of the consumer. Well, circle "false" on your itinerary.
According to a decision last week in the federal appeals court in Philadelphia, labels -- even the old wimpy label -- actually protect the tobacco companies. They give companies immunity from lawsuits. Under the ruling, any consumer who has picked up a pack since 1966 is barred from suing a tobacco company for liability in his "lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, etc." The smoker was, you see, forewarned.
Now here the terrain gets a bit rough for a novice traveler, so hang on. The tobacco companies do not and will not admit that smoking is unhealthy, not to mention lethal. They have funded the most massive disinformation campaign this side of the CIA. The words and images in advertising and promotion associate smoking with the good life instead of a truly crummy death. These corporations fought mightily in Congress to weaken labels.
Nevertheless, according to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, if somebody gets sick or dies after years of inhaling this propaganda, the companies are not responsible. Even though the companies dispute the message on the label, they are protected by it.
Is it any wonder that Elizabeth Whelan of the American Council on Science and Health says of the tobacco industry, "We keep giving them lemon, and they keep making lemonade."
There are currently some 100 cases at different spots on our map where tobacco companies are being sued by victims. Even as we continue on our tour, the tobacco lawyers are trying to quash these cases with the Philadelphia ruling. This is a fact that sends joy through the heart of Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds and even Dow Jones: the tobacco stocks are flying.
"This decision translates as a license to lie," says Richard Daynard of the Tobacco Products Liability Project. "It says that even if you can prove that the companies deliberately lied in their advertising and public-relations material about the relationship between smoking and disease, and the plaintiffs died as a result of believing these lies, the plaintiffs still can't recover."
The court in Philadelphia apparently bought the notion that Congress, in passing the labeling act, balanced the interests of public health and the national economy, i.e., the tobacco interests. By way of political deal-making, Congress exchanged immunity from liability for a bunch of rectangles. This deal, they were convinced, gives cigarettes unique protection. Like it or not, it's the law.
In fact, the 1965 labeling act was a sellout, but not that much of a sellout. No one expected then that it would preempt liability suits.
I have mixed feelings about smokers who sue tobacco companies. There are 50,000 medical citations now showing the connection between health, or lack of it, and smoking. Nobody forces a cigarette between someone else's teeth. At the same time, the tobacco companies that spend $1.5 billion a year to counter the medical message bear some responsibility for manufacturing and marketing a deadly product. At the very least, the issue should be argued in court.
If the Philadelphia decision sticks, the tobacco companies get a free ride. As Daynard says,"They could write an ad that said, 'You see that little box in the corner? Those are lies, part of a communist conspiracy to keep you from your pleasure.' Even if he (a smoker) believed them, he couldn't sue."
So much for the latest magical mystery tour. But as you leave, check the tobacco hawker at the gate. He's the one trying to hide a great big lie behind a little rectangle of truth.
c1986, The Boston Globe Newspaper Company