Big tobacco’s war: No surrender

Ever since a Florida jury awarded some of the state’s smokers a $145 billion judgment against Big Tobacco editorial writers are trying to sort out their feelings. You can argue both ways, for and against the decision.

For example, a lead editorial in the daily newspaper in Providence argued that the decision was a farce – called it “an extortion racket.” It argued that the court is interfering in free enterprise: “No one gets lung cancer if they don’t smoke,” to paraphrase the editorial’s argument.

The opposing argument, or course, is that we don’t normally allow companies – let alone entire industries – poison our citizens with toxic and addictive products. Why do we give the tobacco companies such a huge exemption to that policy?

We’ve seen photos of tobacco farmers in their fields saying that, if the current trend continues, they don’t know what they’ll do to continue to earn a living. I’m not unsympathetic to such a dilemma, although I assume those fertile fields can grow other produce besides tobacco.

My personal dilemma comes from the lies the industry has been spoon-feeding us for decades now. It sounds silly today but there was a time when I believed the line that there weren’t any clear links between smoking and lung cancer. I bent over backwards giving the tobacco industry their due.

Those were the days when I was a chain-smoker extraordinaire, going through three packs a day without a second thought. As I struggled for nears 10 years trying to break my habit, it never occurred to me that I was an addict.

How many mornings I woke up with a severe pain in my chest, coughing and gagging my way through the morning. I saw the lines increase on my face and thought it was complexion problem.

Then I had my day of reckoning. I discovered that I had smoked an entire pack of cigarettes between 9 and 11 am – and didn’t remember smoking a one! That was the day I determined to quit cold turkey and I have never looked back.

Since then I’ve watched friends come down with lung cancer and shared their suffering. And I have gotten angrier at the profits being hauled in by companies like Phillip Morris and the Liggett Tobacco Group.

More recently, I saw a wonderful movie titled “The Insider” chronicle the story of an unsuspecting tobacco company researcher who was persecuted by his employer because he refused to increase the ammonia content of their cigarettes. Ammonia, it turns out, enhances the addictive quality of nicotine.

This brave man, named Lowell Bergman, lost his wife and his home and eventually was forced to turn to another field of endeavor. Seeing the story of his courage unfold before me I realized what a disgrace this industry is and what a pitiful record of exploitation it has assembled in this century.

Personally, I would like to see it disappear from our landscape.

Now, 25 years after I quit smoking, I see my own son and his friends take up the filthy habit in earnest. I watch as he tries different ways to throw off the nicotine yoke and fails each time.

My heart goes out to him. I try to think of different ways to help him through this mess – created by “Big Tobacco.” I think about the researchers like Lowell Bergman whose job it is to figure out how to increase the addictive quality of nicotine without being caught.

My friends, Big Tobacco is getting away with murder. I am reserving all my sympathy for my own family and friends – none for those besieged tobacco farmers and those tobacco company shareholders and their employees and their families.

We’ve allowed cigarettes to sicken and kill our friends and neighbors far too long. We should do what we should have done 100 years ago: Ban tobacco. Stamp out cigarettes. Give our children a chance at a better society than we had. Bring on the suits against tobacco.

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