On Big Tobacco, historians and playing hardball
Sunday, March 14, 2010
There was a good piece in The Nation recently by UCI history professor Jon Wiener (disclaimer: Wiener and I know each other) about the hardball tactics used to try to marginalize the few historians who testify on behalf of plaintiffs their lawsuits against tobacco companies. Among the tactics: Accusing one historian of witness tampering and trying to subpoena his academic work-in-progress.
Wiener writes that the tobacco companies have a small ark of historians willing to testify about how far back consumers have known about the health consequences of smoking. Though few of those academics would talk to Wiener. And he found only three historians who have testified for plaintiffs.
The reasons for the disparity are varied, but in the end it comes down to money. From his piece:
The reasons were explained by Michael Piuze, the Los Angeles attorney who won the $28 billion verdict in the Bullock case. When it comes to the harm caused by smoking, he said, Big Tobacco is unique. “In most product liability litigation–auto manufacturing or pharmaceuticals–there may be one lawsuit for every 50,000 customers,” Piuze said. “But tobacco companies kill or seriously injure one in two of their customers.” (That is the standard scientific view, endorsed by the American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization.) Thus they can’t possibly pay for the damage they have caused. “So the industry decided in the 1950s on a scorched-earth litigation policy. They would never give up. Never settle. If they ever lost a case, they would appeal. Forever. That’s the way it still is. The message to the plaintiffs’ bar is clear: don’t screw with us, or you’ll be sorry. We will break you financially.”
For some reason, this mental image keeps cropping up – Joe Camel wearing brass knuckles.