Bad habits

Consumers, compensation and Big Tobacco.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics
  • Responsible behaviour

For 40 years, when friends, family and health workers repeatedly pleaded with Betty Bullock to stop smoking, she is reported to have replied: ‘I am an adult and this is my business.’ Her habit led to bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia, and for two decades doctors urged her to give up cigarettes.

She was not wholly oblivious to reports that tobacco smoking could cause cancer. ‘I would read a little clip in the paper here or there. Some medical studies were stating that they felt it could’, she said. ‘But then I’d see things Philip Morris would say, like: “That’s just statistics.”‘ She continued her two-packet-a-day habit until 1998, and had cancer diagnosed in February 2001. Bullock, who is now in the terminal phases of the disease, was last week awarded a colossal $28billion in damages from the tobacco company Philip Morris by a Los Angeles court.

There is no doubt that tobacco companies in the past were dishonest. Jurors in this case were told that Philip Morris had been aware of the risks for years, but had covered them up while tailoring cigarettes to be even more addictive. And it is hard not to feel sympathy for Mrs Bullock in her desperate predicament. At the same time, such a verdict reveals some unpleasant aspects about American society in particular – and the Western world.

For years, the anti-smoking lobby, frustrated by the slow progress made by federal government in making tobacco consumption as prohibitive as possible, has turned instead to the over-powerful law courts. Less interested in introducing legislation that deals with smoking at the consumer end, the anti-smoking lobby has turned its efforts to putting tobacco companies out of business. Since the mid-1990s, tobacco companies have agreed to pay out $250billion in legal settlements, with more cases pending. Employing the same tactics, the anti-gun lobby is trying to put arms manufacturers out of business by suing them when any criminal misuses one of their products.

Why has the USA become so paralysed by a culture of compensation? In the land of the free and the brave, the country that gave the world dynamic individualism and brash capitalism, one would expect caveat emptor – the buyer beware – to be the rule of law.

No more: the buyer is now a helpless victim. While conceding the tobacco companies’ mischievousness in the 1950s, it is difficult to believe anybody thought smoking was actually good for them – that cigarettes contained protein or extra Vitamin C. It is also unwise to ignore the opinion of disinterested doctors and favour that of interested producers and retailers.

It is illusionary to view such court victories as a case of ‘ordinary people’ fighting back against evil multinationals. In fact, it’s almost as if plaintiffs are demanding their rights to be treated as children. These legal cases rest upon the assumption that individuals are not responsible for their own actions, that they are puppets of multinational corporations. Which of course, some of them are. But you can always cut the strings.

  • Goon squad

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has been accused of heavy-handedness for the dramatic way in which it raided Sinn Fein’s Stormont offices on 4 October. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams called it ‘political theatre’. It was indeed a little melodramatic, resembling something you would see in a South American dictatorship.

It was equally distressing to see the PSNI’s new attire, which features a combat jacket and baseball cap. It is unwise for a police force to resemble the class of criminals it is trying to apprehend. Take away a PSNI officer’s badge and chequered trimmings and he looks like the kind of tattooed goon found prowling the Falls or the Shankill.

If Ulster really was British, police officers would cover their heads with those old fashioned, domed helmets – as do policeman in England and Wales. They make members of the constabulary appear taller, distinguished, and distinguishable from members of the general public.

This is not to say ‘tit-heads’ have always been an object of affection. When they were introduced in the mid-nineteenth century, they instantly became a source of ridicule. ‘The objectionable peculiarities of the policeman’s hat are chiefly its excessive weight, which is greatest at the crown, so that the thing is not only heavy, but top heavy’, remarked a Punch article in July 1861. ‘It gets, therefore, instantly knocked off in a row, and leaves unprotected the head which it was designed to defend. The glazed top attracts the heat of the sun when that luminary presides over the beat of the wearer. Thus rendering him hot-headed, it necessarily hinders his obedience to the standing-order of his corps, which requires that, “a Constable should on all occasions execute his duty with good temper and discretion”.’

All the same, far better to be tit-headed than appear to be doing an unwitting impression of a gangster rap band or East 17. Next step: grey and white camouflage combat trousers.

  • Damaged reputations

More litigation news from Los Angeles. Two tramps paid by film students to fight each other, batter steel doors and set their hair on fire for the video Bumfights: A Cause for Concern are suing the makers of the film – which has sold more than 300,000 copies over the internet. Donald Brennan, 53, and Rufus Hannah, 48, said they had filed their £70,000 lawsuit because their alcoholism had been exploited. ‘When you’re drinking for 20 years, as I have been, and you don’t have a beer in your hand, you would pretty much do anything to get one’, said Brennan.

Again, one must feel sorry for these tramps. But nobody forced them to do it. They are adults and that’s their business. Oh, all right then, blame Coors, Miller and Budweiser.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

Read on:

A look at the ‘spying scandal’, by Brendan O’Neill

Name, blame, shame and claim, by Tracey Brown

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Topics Politics


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