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Tobacco: Balzar 'Hits the Nail on the Head'

June 26, 2001

As a member of the jury that recently awarded $3 billion in punitive damages to Richard Boeken, a lifelong smoker of Philip Morris' Marlboro cigarettes, I read John Balzar's "Crimes on Tobacco Road" (Commentary, June 24) with interest. Balzar hits the nail on the head when he states: "I'll accept my share of the responsibility, but I won't accept it all."

According to documents we saw during the trial, Philip Morris knew for years that more than half of its Marlboro customers were under the age of 18, many as young as 12. At the very least, Philip Morris did nothing to stop this. At worst, it may have made it the basis of its marketing strategy. When a major corporation knowingly sells a deadly and addictive drug to children for decades, then manipulates the product to make it even more addictive, it forfeits any right to claim "individual responsibility" as a defense when those addicted children later die prematurely.

Balzar is right: These guys are criminals and should be treated like any other pushers targeting the schoolyard. But that's unlikely to happen. As Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's recent decision to seek a settlement with Big Tobacco makes obscenely clear, we cannot expect government officials to take any real action against Big Tobacco. There is just too much Big Tobacco money stuffed into their pockets.

I believe more civil suits--individual and especially class action--are promising. Other juries will hear the evidence we heard and share the anger we felt. Lawsuits have the power to bring "death by a thousand cuts" to the tobacco companies, eventually forcing them into bankruptcy courts.

Peter Brosnan

Los Angeles

Balzar would like to see tobacco executives personally suffer some sort of punishment but does not seek to make tobacco illegal. Perhaps this is because even when he is not smoking his mind wanders to the rush of a "long drag." Balzar admits to a feeling of self-loathing when he returns to smoking. This article seems to be a rage against that feeling and an attempt to shift blame from himself to the tobacco executives. It will add heat to the demonization of men in suits but will provide no illumination on the tobacco problem.

George R. Pulliam


The biggest crime today on Tobacco Road is the gleeful willingness of our government institutions to join in on the feeding frenzy on tobacco profits. The litigation earnings along with the taxes they already receive could conceivably propel them to the top of the heap of tobacco consumption beneficiaries. Something doesn't quite seem right about that, particularly when there is no accountability on how that money is spent.

Yeah, I was a cigarette smoker for 13 years. I used to carry a pack of "cowboys" in my shirt pocket. I started smoking at 17, and it wasn't because of advertising. Just about everybody I knew smoked and we all knew everything we needed to know about the health risks. I quit on my own some 20-plus years ago. It wasn't easy.

Someday I may die from a tobacco-related disease, and you know what? It's not going to be anybody's fault but my own.

Terry Vasseur


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