Wall Street Journal Profiles California’s Fight Against Big Tobacco
Following a Los Angeles jury's recent decision to award a smoker with lung cancer $3 billion in punitive damages, as well as two previous court losses for the tobacco industry in the state, the Wall Street Journal reports that California is "giving the tobacco industry a major case of nerves." In 1998, "[H]ealth-conscious and consumer-friendly" California repealed a law barring lawsuits by sick smokers against the tobacco industry, jump-starting the series of cases. In 1999, a San Francisco jury ordered Philip Morris Cos. to pay a former smoker $51.5 million in punitive and compensatory damages, and last year another San Francisco jury awarded $21.7 million to a female smoker who has since died of cancer. California is "hostile to smoking" in other ways, the Journal reports. The state government has "waged an aggressive anti-tobacco campaign" since 1989, including one of the longest running state tobacco control programs and strict state laws banning indoor smoking. The state's adult smoking rate is down to 17%, the second lowest in the nation, and per-capita cigarette consumption has dropped by half since the late 1980s. The state's most recent effort involves a series of television ads that rebut Philip Morris' "flashy, $100 million-a-year corporate image campaign," which features spots highlighting the company's charity efforts. In one of California's ads, an animated crocodile with the words "Big Tobacco" on his chest, says, "We don't say anything about cigarettes on the tube. ... We talk about community service." The announcer asks, "And get that smoky old brand name out there, right?" To which the crocodile responds, "Bingo." In another ad, a tobacco executive speaking on the phone says, "Do some more feel-good charity commercials and we'll just P.R. the hell out of it." Another man responds, "The beauty is, we're selling cigarettes without selling cigarettes, right?"
The Journal says the "big question" is whether California is an "anomaly" or a "harbinger of a shift in national attitudes against Big Tobacco." According to Philip Morris associate general counsel William Ohlemeyer, it might be "too early" to say the company has a "California problem." He added, "But I grant you, we have a California issue." The Journal predicts, however, that if Philip Morris ends up paying more "sizable judgments," other attorneys will be encouraged to file more suits. Further signaling a change in attitudes, more states are moving to adopt tobacco-control strategies similar to California's (Fairclough, Wall Street Journal, 6/8).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.