By awarding a smoker's widower $400,000 this week, a jury in New Jersey made some potentially important legal history. Even so, there are sharp limits to how loudly the anti-tobacco movement can cheer at this stage.
Though the decision marks the first time a federal court has found that a cigarette company failed to warn of the risks of smoking, the firm was cleared of the much more serious charge of conspiring to mislead the public that smoking was safe.The precedent set by the decision may not stand up on appeal, and the appeal could easily take a year or more. Likewise, the $400,000 award is small change to the $35 billion tobacco industry.
A more serious threat to that industry, which spent an estimated $50 million defending itself in the New Jersey case, is the prospect of this week's decision generating still more smoker lawsuits in addition to the 100 already facing it.
The New Jersey case also made it impossible for the tobacco industry to keep insisting that the scientific evidence isn't entirely in yet on the effect of smoking on health. What an outrageous claim! Everyone knows that smoking is dangerous. The case in New Jersey pried loose reams of private memos showing that tobacco firms have known all along that tobacco causes cancer.
Moreover, after 20 years of mandatory health warnings on cigarette packages and advertising, the U.S. Surgeon General recently officially proclaimed smoking to be as addictive as heroin or cocaine.
Whatever else this week's verdict in New Jersey may tell the tobacco industry, the message to the public should be unmistakably clear: Don't start smoking. If you do smoke, quit.