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Tobacco gets a slap on the wrist

September 30, 2006|by Ron Frew

Sometimes when it appears you have won, you really have lost. Such is the case with the recent federal judicial decision concerning the government's case against the top cigarette makers that were charged with deception concerning their product and its health effects, mislabeling of their product and violations of the RICO laws.

In her ruling in the long-running case, Judge Gladys Kessler said, "Over the course of more than 50 years, defendants lied, misrepresented and deceived the American public, including smokers and the young people they avidly sought as 'replacement smokers,' about the devastating health effects of smoking and environmental tobacco smoke (second hand smoke)." She also said, "tobacco companies are selling a highly addictive product that leads to a staggering number of deaths per year, an immeasurable amount of human suffering and economic loss and profound burden on our national health care system."

Sounds like pretty serious stuff to me. Guess what the penalty was for 50 years of deception? Close to nothing. For committing 50 years of fraud, conspiracy and deception, they were told to publish in newspapers and on their Web sites "corrective statements" on the adverse health effects of smoking and addictiveness of smoking. Also they are to stop labeling any of the products as "low tar," "light," "ultra light," or "mild," since these products have been found to be no safer than any other of their products.

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The only financial penalty was $140 million to compensate the government for its cost of prosecuting the case. Now $140 million is a whole lot of money to most of us, but it is far, far less than the tobacco companies ever dreamed they would have to pay as a result of this case, if found guilty.

This case began in 1999 under the Clinton administration, and originally asked for $130 billion in penalties. Under President Bush's administration, the amount requested was cut to $10 billion after the government said it had a weak case. Sounds like everyone was on the same side, doesn't it? The judge ruled she could not order the tobacco companies to pay the billions the government requested. Makes you wonder, why?

So here we have a lawsuit more or less gutted by the people who are supposed to be prosecuting it, tobacco companies that are found guilty with overwhelming evidence - and a slap on the wrist as the final outcome.

We now have to ask ourselves, what is the result of all this conduct by the tobacco companies? The answer is fairly straightforward. There are deaths from smoking on a yearly basis in the U.S. Another 50,000 die from second-hand smoke. These people die from heart disease, lung cancer and a multitude of other diseases caused by smoking. More significantly is the surgeon general's report of June of this year which states, "evidence is now indisputable that second-hand smoke is an alarming public health hazard and that measures like no-smoking sections don't provide adequate protection." The bottom line is that smoking not only kills the people who smoke, but also those who are around them when they smoke.

This brings us to the most important point - what do we as citizens do about this? Well, the first thing you do is ask who has allowed this to continue for 50-plus years? The answer is our politicians in both Washington and Annapolis. Our members of Congress have known about this problem since the first surgeon general's report on smoking in the '60s, but have chosen to ignore the problem thanks to the tobacco lobbyists.

Our representatives in Annapolis are even more guilty. While many of the states on the East Coast and elsewhere have outlawed all smoking in public, Maryland has been a staunch opponent of outlawing smoking in all public places. Even closer to home is Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, who as a member of the House Health and Government Operations Committee has twice voted against the Clean Indoor Air Act. This bill would eliminate smoking in all public places in Maryland, including restaurants and bars. In addition to this, Gov. Robert Ehrlich has publicly stated that he would veto the Clean Indoor Air Act if it passed the General Assembly.

What to do? Well, my first suggestion is that you let your elected representatives know that you are tired of breathing second-hand smoke in the restaurants in Maryland and also ask why are we allowing a product that "kills" people to be sold in this country.

Secondly, I would encourage you to determine which candidates are in favor of the Clean Indoor Air Act for Maryland and vote accordingly. We pretty much know who is not in favor of it. If you are not concerned about this issue then do nothing and continue to breath poisoned air. But whatever you do, I would strongly urge you to vote in the upcoming general election to voice you opinion on whatever issues are important to you.

Ron Frew is the Washington County representative for Smoke Free Maryland.

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