WASHINGTON — Washington. -- After an estimated 3.5 million American deaths from smoking in the past decade alone, the Supreme Court has finally summoned the nerve to decide whether cigarette victims or their survivors can win damages from tobacco companies.
The son of a woman who died of lung cancer after smoking for more than 40 years alleges that cigarette advertising made tobacco seem medically safe. The industry maintains that the law requiring health warnings on each pack made companies immune to damages.
Rose Cipollone died seven years ago, 18 years after the labeling law was passed. But she smoked for 23 years before those warning labels appeared -- years when the scientific evidence against smoking was mounting, but publicly ignored by tobacco companies. Thus the Cipollone case, as it has wound through various court levels, has seen arguments over the validity of the medical evidence against smoking, the nature of cigarette advertising and the legal stature of the health warnings on each pack.
Every dissertation on the noxious nature of tobacco begins, as it should, with King James I's 1604 assertion that smoking is ''a custome lothsome to the Eye, hateful to the Nose, harmful to the Braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and, in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian Smoke of the Pit that is bottomless.''
The good king was right on the mark; researchers have fleshed out his opinion with fact since then, but none has improved on his description. In that same century, several popes made smoking a sin punishable by excommunication, Tsar Michael of Russia punished smokers by cutting off their noses, and France banned sale of tobacco except by medical prescription.
But as smokers hooked on the weed refused to quit, most governments switched from fighting the habit to taxing it. That became a major revenue source, which discouraged those governments from joining the anti-smoking crusade.
In this country, per-capita cigarette consumption for those over 14 years old -- smokers and non-smokers alike -- had reached 199 packs by the early 1960s. That's 3,980 cigarettes a year. Since about half of all adult Americans were smokers at that time, the average for them was close to 8,000 a year.
That was true despite early studies that showed deaths from lung cancer were ten times as high for smokers as for non-smokers. Such studies multiplied in the 1950s, here and abroad, and the statistical findings were remarkably consistent. So were the results of laboratory research.
Yet when President Kennedy was asked at a press conference in May 1962 whether he and his health advisers agreed with anti-smoking reports and believed the government should do something to protect the public, he sidestepped. The issue is sensitive, he said, and besides, the stock market already was in enough trouble. But that summer, his surgeon general appointed an unbiased panel to carry out a comprehensive study.
The surgeon general's 1964 report was a powerful, documented indictment of smoking. Each year since then, it has been followed by another, stacking evidence upon evidence. Yet before and after it, right up to today, the tobacco industry has gone on denying that evidence. Its advertising links cigarettes not to lung cancer and heart disease, but to fresh air and the great outdoors.
To the layman, the case now accepted by the Supreme Court seems simple indeed: In the years before 1966, when the package warning was required, cigarette ads did not merely imply but openly claimed that certain brands were healthy. Doctors' testimony was offered as proof. Yet while those ads ran, the industry was much more aware than the general public of the mounting case against smoking.
If industry officials dare maintain that they were not then aware of such evidence, for the past 25 years they have not had even that totally incredible excuse. They have sold billions of packs, each warning not only potential victims but the manufacturers themselves that smoking can kill.
The industry was guilty of cynically profiting from a known health risk before the surgeon general's report of 1964. Since then, its denials have grown more cynical with each succeeding report. And since then, roughly 8 million Americans have died from smoking.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.