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Last week: the week when reason went up in smoke

Jason Baran
By Jason Baran
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday October 7, 2002

Have a case of the Mondays? Not this Monday. The world should celebrate today's edition of Monday. Not because there is anything inherently wonderful about today, but because last week is officially over. It's about time. Last week may very well be remembered as the most absurd week in the history of the world.

For those not keeping track, last week produced two Congressmen who hailed Saddam Hussein as the keeper of truth's eternal flame, and decried President Bush, thankfully not as the great Satan, but as a liar. Additionally, Democrats in New Jersey renewed their assault on law and order with their eleventh-hour replacement of Senator Robert Toricelli on the ballot in an attempt to circumvent his inevitable slaughter in November. And if that weren't enough, the city of New York reports that Charles Rhodes of Brooklyn has 499 delinquent parking tickets totaling more than $66,000.

Just when things seemed to be at their darkest hour, Friday put the icing on the cake. A California jury awarded a sixty-four year-old woman $28 Billion that's capital B, Billion in punitive damages from Phillip Morris because she contracted cancer last year after 47 years of willfully poisoning herself.

Betty Bullock put the blame for her cancer at the feet of an evil tobacco company and what her attorney called "the largest fraud scheme ever perpetrated." Ms. Bullock wants tobacco companies, Phillip Morris in particular, to pay for deceitful business practices. This is actually a legitimate cause.

Any company that negligently withholds information regarding the safety of a product should be held accountable.

One tenet of the free market is the need for adequate information to make good decisions. Tobacco companies' truthfulness about their products is questionable at best. But suspect behavior is not enough to condemn a company.

By no means should this be read as an endorsement of tobacco companies. On the contrary, everyone would probably be better off without tobacco. Smokers would get lung cancer less often. Non-smokers would no longer have to endure the putrid stench that emanates from smokers. Moreover, it would spare the world from reports about reckless juries awarding ungodly sums of money to a knowing accomplice in the tobacco game.

That's right, Ms. Bullock admittedly ignored advice from doctors and friends to quit smoking. She also ignored the warnings about dangers associated with smoking.

They've been required on tobacco products and advertising since 1966. She's been reading these warnings for 36 years, as she puffs away on her little cancer sticks. CNN reported in 1999 two years before Ms. Bullock became ill that during those 33 years, a pack-a-day smoker would see the health risks 200,000 times. She didn't get the message?

Even if those messages slipped by, what about the physical warnings? The wonderfully deep burn in her lungs that she so craved is a big, red, flashing light with fireworks. What about the gurgling cough? The racing heartbeat? All are like the alcohol buzz. That buzz is a signal that something is wrong.

Phillip Morris didn't make Betty Bullock poison herself. They may not have been completely honest about their product and for that there should be a penalty. Certainly, that penalty isn't $28 billion dollars for one person with a reckless disregard for her personal health. What's next: $50 billion for a fat man who feels McDonald's didn't make it obvious enough that the Big Mac may not be the world's most healthful food?

Ms. Bullock's goal was to punish big tobacco in a big way 38 percent of Phillip Morris' business last year. But the punishment doesn't fit the crime. Not in this case, not for one person, especially one who ignored all the warning signs. This vigilante jury is exactly why the tort reforms that endanger the courts' independence are increasingly popular.

It's no wonder that some juries miss the point. It's kind of hard to blame them when the plaintiff's attorneys make such inappropriate and outlandish claims Ms. Bullock's attorney compared the tobacco companies' actions to the Sept. 11th attacks.

The jury awarded $28 billion to one person who ignored doctors, warning labels and her own body; what was this jury smoking?

Never has a Monday been so welcome.


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