e. magill's Intrigue


A Small Victory of Common Sense over the War on Substances

Last Wednesday, the Honorable Robert W. Sweet, a federal judge in New York, threw out a lawsuit filed against McDonalds that alleged that the fast food chain, by manipulation of their product and advertising, was directly responsible for the obesity of two young girls. The parents of these girls, who brought the suit, had every reason to believe that it could have worked, and they will undoubtedly appeal Sweet’s decision. After all, if it worked against the Marlboro Man, why can’t it work against Ronald McDonald?

In his official opinion, Sweet argued that, “if consumers know (or reasonably should know) the potential ill health effects of eating at McDonalds, they cannot blame McDonalds if they, nonetheless, choose to satiate their appetite with a surfeit of supersized McDonalds products.” He goes on to argue that the plaintiffs failed to prove that McDonalds had any liability, since the “potential ill health effects of eating at McDonalds” are “sufficiently obvious.” [3]

Sweet seems to be attempting to change the momentum started ten years ago by another lawsuit against McDonalds, filed by an elderly woman named Stella Liebeck who spilled coffee on her lap in 1992 and was awarded $2.9 million because a New Jersey jury believed that McDonalds had failed to give her adequate warning that the coffee could be hot enough to burn her. Over the years, the name “Stella” has become inextricably tied to frivolous lawsuit claims with huge rewards, or “Stella Awards”. [20]

While trying to understand how Sweet could disagree in general with a certain school of anti-libertarian thought, it doesn’t take long to learn that the judge is on the board of directors for the Drug Policy Alliance (also known as the Drug Policy Foundation), an organization that fights for harm-reduction and drug legalization in an effort to end the government’s “War on Drugs” [4, 5]. Sweet is part of a slowly growing movement that argues that the illegalization of drugs and the obscene massing of government resources to enforce it has done more harm than good in American society. This movement (the major voice of which being the Libertarian Party) talks about prohibition as something that is good for government but bad for life. It brings up things like organized crime and the bootleggers during the alcohol prohibition era of the last century, who proved that the struggle to control vice is often far worse than the vice itself. [7]

From this perspective, it seems like Sweet’s ruling is one tiny victory in an almost epic battle.

That battle culminated most recently in the endless lawsuits against the smoking industry, or Big Tobacco. Armed with propaganda that ranges from conspiracy theories that Big Tobacco is trying to bleed the restaurant industry dry [9] and encouraging children not only to smoke but shoplift [10] to the downright absurd advertising campaigns parading their accusations and bloated statistics as proof that Big Tobacco is the personification of evil, plaintiffs sued because cigarettes were killing them. The implication in all of these suits is that the “victims” did not know that inhaling smoke was bad for their health. Juries usually bought their stories, and demanded exorbitant rewards that could never be delivered.

Most people didn’t bat an eye. They came to believe that cigarettes are an evil that must be destroyed, as can be seen by a wave of litigation crossing the country from Florida to California, litigation prohibiting where, when, and how much a person can smoke. We seem to be coming ever closer to an all-out ban on cigarettes, and only the smokers seem to mind, but the smokers, America’s latest outcasts, are not a concern anymore. The modern claim is that smokers hurt all of us, because second-hand smoke is extremely detrimental, so, therefore, a person’s right to breathe fresh air overthrows a person’s right to smoke.

The research, however, on the “evils” of second-hand smoke, is dubious. The largest world-wide study on the effects of second-hand smoke (conducted by the World Health Organization) came to the conclusion that second-hand smoke (also referred to as environmental tobacco smoke) cannot be substantially linked to lung cancer, and can even prove beneficial to the immune system (although that part is statistically speculative) [13, 14, 15]. Other “conclusive” studies, such as a widely-cited 1993 EPA meta-analysis, are actually extremely general and full of holes. The EPA study is, in fact, nothing more than a collection of other research that was picked and chosen by the EPA (thus the term “meta-analysis”) and the study’s results were published before it was even completed [16]. Other research, such as the ORNL study that found that exposure levels of second-hand smoke are far lower than generally believed [17], is typically ignored by mainstream sources.

And yet, without bothering to research any of this, the growing majority in this country will not hesitate to tell you how bad cigarette smoke is, often faking a cough or two for dramatic effect, whenever someone lights a cigarette near them. This same majority has no problem wearing perfume on a daily basis, even though chemical studies of perfume and perfume allergies have found that perfume can cause asthma, irritation, blindness, and even death [19]. The majority also drives automobiles, rides planes, and promotes American industry, polluting the atmosphere with carbon monoxide and other carcinogens in far greater numbers and with far greater efficiency than an entire country club full of cigar smokers could produce in a crowded room in a week.

The propaganda machine against tobacco has been extremely effective in spreading its own hypocrisy.

The argument can be made that the villianization of Big Tobacco--and illicit substances in general--has been highly beneficial for politicians. They can run on a campaign of increasing taxation on cigarettes, claiming that such tax hikes will prevent helpless children from being victimized by the evil corporate monsters who market death at four bucks a pack (even though these same corporate monsters are some of the oldest and most economically viable companies in American history). They can say they’re against Big Tobacco, and, thanks to the propaganda machine, the crowd always cheers them on.

We live in a society that believes that Philip Morris is responsible for your bad smoking habit, that drugs are responsible for most bad things in this country, and that McDonalds is responsible for the fact that you’re four-hundred and eighty pounds and dying of a heart attack. If something bad happens, sue, because you can’t possibly be at fault.

But there is hope that common sense will one day prevail over this madness. Thanks to pioneers such as the Honorable Robert W. Sweet, true accountability might finally be put back in the place where it belongs: on the shoulders of people who are responsible for their own actions instead of on the shoulders of companies who only exist because there is a demand for them.

(This list is not meant to represent the entirety of my research on this subject.)

1. Washington Times: Judge doesn’t swallow suit...
2. CNN: U.S. judge dismisses obesity suit vs. McDonald’s
3. FindLaw: Official Opinion by Judge Sweet (pdf)
4. Drug Policy Alliance
5. Drug Policy Foundation (summary)
6. Judges for Legalization
7. Libertarian Party: Should We Re-legalize Drugs?
8. IMDB: Tell Your Children (a.k.a. Reefer Madness)
9. Tobacco Scam
10. How Big Tobacco encourages shoplifting by kids
11. Addicted to Profit
12. ASH: Sue the Tobacco Industry Page
13. Smoking Out Bad Science
14. PubMed: Abstract of WHO Study
15. The Facts: WHO Study
16. The Facts: EPA Report
17. ORNL: Exposures to second-hand smoke lower than believed
18. Libertarian Party Press Release: Teen Smoking
19. Most Common Chemicals found in 1991 EPA Study (Perfume)
20. Stella Awards

-e. magill, 01/27/2003
Copyright ©2003 e. magill. All rights reserved.