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Guns, tobacco bad for nation’s health

Patricia Henley, who has inoperable cancer, sued cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris and was awarded $51.5 million by a jury Feb. 10. This is the third big judgment in favor of smokers in three years. And last November a coalition of 46 states reached a $206 billion -- the computations vary -- settlement with the big tobacco companies in compensation for damage done by smoking not only to individuals but to the society.

For years, even decades, suits brought against Big Tobacco were pulverized by a legal juggernaut that added insult to injury by boasting about its invincibility. Now, we the people are thinking otherwise. Jurors are falling over each other to punish the tobacco companies that, it now transpires, were lying to us all along while making unimaginable profits. The Henley suit is but one example: Her lawyers had asked for $15 million in punitive damages but the jury awarded $50 million.

Cities and states across the nation, meanwhile, realizing that guns are as damaging to the commonweal as tobacco, have brought suit against gun manufacturers for -- guess what -- making guns dangerous to people’s health. This showdown is still in its early stages. The National Rifle Association has leaped, guns blazing, into the fray. The NRA notched a quick victory in Georgia, pressuring the state legislature to pass a bill that would block anti-gun suits. The gun people were able to do that and will probably do it again, for the usual reason -- it pays out big money to get sympathetic state politicians elected.

Sounds like business as usual. But there’s something new in the air. It’s just that politicians are often the last to get it.

Big Tobacco is reeling from recent defeats, not because their lawyers are less sharp than a decade ago but because the population woke up to the stupidity of so many being killed by cigarettes; woke up to the deception about cigarettes not being addictive or even dangerous; woke to the greed that motivated very rich moguls to tamper further with addictive substances so we would be too weak to resist, until we died.

Henley admitted her illness was in part her own fault, because she smoked three packs a day, but that rationale no longer excuses the big companies. Logic and legal niceties aside, we instinctively know there’s something wrong and we’re tired of it.

The gun lobby is confronting its most recent challenge with typical in-your-face defiance. One wonders will people look back in a thousand years and wonder at the arrogance with which this small, fanatical group confounded the will of the people. Their rigidity in not giving an inch, not letting go even of battle grade guns, not accepting the most modest checks on weapons so recklessly used to kill citizens night after night, defies imagination.

The NRA would do well to be more circumspect. There is a growing sense in the community that something is rotten about this plague of guns. We sense it so acutely, we’re beginning to act on it. We’re undergoing one of our occasional societal transformations.

Neither battle is yet won. The last two major awards against Big Tobacco were reversed on appeal, and the plaintiffs got nothing. Henley runs a risk of the same fate. Indeed, Henley’s first big breakthrough was to be able to sue at all: Until a 1987 reform, the law said killing yourself with cigarettes was your own problem; but that in turn was part of wider legislation to protect the interests of major corporations.

These reversals on appeal, though, are rejections of the will of the jury, and therefore of the people’s will.

This is an overly litigious society. But for once people may be suing for the right reasons. Individuals and cities, whether suing tobacco or gun interests, are making their cases in terms of the wider good. If they begin to succeed, other enemies of the common good would, in turn, do well to take notice.

National Catholic Reporter, February 26, 1999