Slow Burn

America’s tobacco giants ($45 billion in sales last year) hit a major impasse last month. After years of tobacco’s denials that smoking harms the public health, a federal appeals court concurred with the Federal Drug Administration that tobacco is an addictive drug subject to FDA regulation. Despite a recent industry victory in a major liability case, U.S. tobacco companies are newly and perhaps permanently on the defensive. Even some of the industry’s vaunted political clout (Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco, the two largest cigarette makers, were first and third respectively in corporate contributions to political parties last year) has begun to lose its reach. And with a long series of liability trials coming up (tobacco spent $600 million in lawyers’ fees alone last year), investors’ confidence has begun to waver. Following an adverse judgment in a liability case against another company last year, in only one day Philip Morris lost nearly $12 billion in market value.

This is not the time for the public or the government to capitulate. Local, state, and federal officials should resist offers for premature group settlements (now being floated by tobacco executives) from an industry that for decades thumbed its nose at any suggestion of regulation while working to attract new generations to its deadly product.

Smoking kills 420,000 Americans a year (one in five deaths) and costs the country $50 billion...

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