Lawsuit Lays a Smoking Body at Tobacco's Door

ELLEN GOODMAN

June 30, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- Over the years, I have developed a grudging -- truly grudging -- appreciation of the great American tobacco pushers. These guys have a disinformation campaign that would put the old KGB to shame.

The tobacco lobby has spent almost four decades countering research that links smoking with cancer, heart disease, emphysema -- the whole health catastrophe. Each time another doctor or surgeon general blasts them with a new piece of evidence, their hired hands grab the nearest microphone and insist that no one has yet ''proved'' that cigarettes ''cause'' these diseases.

If we had a videotape of someone smoking her first cigarette, developing an instant tumor and dying on the spot, they would say, ''What about the polyester in her shirt? What about the perfume? You can't prove it was the cigarette!''

These people are experts at turning lemons into lemonade.

A generation ago, when the government ruled that cigarette packs and ads had to carry health warnings, they fought tooth and coffin nail. Then when smokers and their survivors began suing, the manufacturers hid behind the little rectangular regulation. The tobacco industry said that consumers really should know what they themselves routinely denied.

The warnings didn't do much to protect consumers. But they did a whole lot to protect the tobacco companies.

Now, at long last, the Supreme Court has ruled that warnings don't grant complete immunity from liability suits. This decision came bearing the name of Rose Cipollone, a woman who started smoking in the Chesterfield era and changed brands whenever a new cigarette came onto the market advertised as ''mild'' or promoted with ''safety tips.''

She died in 1981 of lung cancer. But before her death, she filed a suit against the manufacturers who, she said, convinced her smoking wasn't dangerous.

The good news for those of us who regard tobacco people as the deadliest of drug dealers is that anyone can now sue these people for hiding or distorting the dangers of smoking. This goes to the heart, or the Achilles' heel, of the disinformers.

Ever since 1953 when the link between tobacco and cancer was established, the tobacco lobbyists, spokesmen, ''scientists,'' and telephone hotlines have all been directed at casting doubt on the health risks and reassuring the addicts. As Richard Daynard of the Tobacco Products Liability Project says, ''The industry is always saying to people, don't worry, it's really fun. It's as if the alcohol industry were telling drivers, 'Hey, most people who drink make it home, don't let those nay-saying grumpy Puritans get in your way.'''

Now the consumers who bought the lies and got sick from them can have their day in court. They will have to prove that the companies were sleazy and they were suckers, but they can go for it.

The bad news, however, is that the ruling does nothing to curtail the other part of the tobacco disinformation campaign: advertising. The court said that the smokers of the post-label era can't claim that they were inadequately warned. Nor can they argue that the big glossy messages from the Marlboro Man and his gal, Virginia Slims, overwhelmed the handful of words from the surgeon general. Joe Camel is still cool.

Frankly, I have never seen a cigarette ad that wasn't fundamentally misleading. Any promotion of a healthy, energetic, glamorous lifestyle is at odds with a smoking, gasping reality -- although I suppose emphysema, cancer and heart disease can make you Virginia slim.

But this mixed message from the Supreme Court leads back to a central dilemma about cigarettes. What do you do with a product that's lethal and legal? We can't turn addicts into criminals by banning tobacco and we don't want another generation getting hooked. What can we do?

The health activists are trying to shrink the smoking sections, shame the active smokers from harming the passive and sue the manufacturers. With some victories in the courts, tobacco may now become a less profitable product.

But the tobacco companies still spend some $3 billion a year in advertising and promotion to recruit young smokers. Until we stop the advertising of the single most dangerous product on the mass market today, success will be as hard as turning lemonade back into a lemon.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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