Sunday, April 20, 1997
Can we help tobacco firms
see the light?


BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

So, the makers of cigarettes are willing to discuss a settlement with attorneys representing the people their products have killed.

Well, of course they are. They're not stupid.

If Jeffrey Dahmer had been given a choice about whether he'd rather pay a great big fine and move his operations abroad or stop killing people and go to jail, I'll bet he'd have come to the bargaining table, too.

The plan being discussed would permit tobacco companies to continue making their products, put a cap on the amount of money American victims could expect, and allow them to put the $600 million they've been spending on legal fees into their push to hook a new generation of smokers overseas.

Global damages

U.S. exports of cigarettes to Japan, for instance, have increased 929 percent from 1985 to 1996. Imagine the reparations our grandchildren will have to pay some day to outraged foreigners.

The makers of asbestos probably wish they'd gotten the same deal. Instead, they had to pay off victims and stop making their product. Some of them went under. The strongest ones, Cincinnati's Eagle- Picher, for instance, found new products.

The tobacco companies won't have to invest in research and development. It's just business as usual for them, except that they may have to dump Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man. Big deal. The original Marlboro Man was dead anyway. Really dead. Lung cancer.

Debra South, 44, of Colerain Township managed to quit smoking right before she went into the hospital to have a cancerous tumor and part of her right lung removed. Four chemotherapies and 39 radiation treatments later, she feels lousy. And is angry.

But, Debbie, I say, surely you knew that cigarettes were bad for you. ''Not when I was 11 years old. That's when I started. By the time I was 13, I was hooked. Really hooked.''

I remembered a woman I knew whose larynx had been removed. Margie sucked smoke into her lungs through the hole in her throat. We probably didn't need a signed confession from the manufacturer to suspect that this product had some unusually addictive properties.

Moral dilemma

A Liggett memo from 1978 wondered, ''Is it morally permissible to develop a safe method for administering a habit-forming drug when, in so doing, the number of addicts will increase?''

Let's see. How shall we answer? Well, we might wonder if you spent as much time working on the safety part of the conundrum as you did on the habit-forming part. And since you bring it up, we think that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is willing - even eager - to help you wrestle with problems like this.

Of course, the tobacco companies have declared themselves reluctant to accept advice from the FDA. Do you suppose they're afraid a government agency charged with the public health might conclude that drawing carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide and nicotine into our lungs will make us sick?

Following the announcement last week that Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco executives were negotiating with the attorneys general of eight of 22 states seeking damages, their stock soared. Wednesday, Philip Morris closed at $43.25 per share, up $4.25, and RJR Nabisco jumped $3.25 per share to close at $33.50.

The future looks rosy for the guys who stood up before Congress and swore that their product was not addictive and wouldn't make you sick.

Maybe besides making them cough up money, we should give them Debbie's phone number. Or make them empty bedpans for a while in an oncology unit. Or they could listen to the last gasp of an emphysema patient who has finally given up the desperately hard work of breathing.

Perhaps these experiences would be helpful to them in case they find themselves struggling with another decision about what is ''morally permissible.''

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular contributor on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

PULFER ARCHIVE