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What Every Progressive Christian Should Know About the Tobacco Industry

by Graham Kelder

Graham E. Kelder, Jr. is Managing attorney of the Tobacco Control Resource Center, Inc., a nonprofit educational foundation that researches and encourages the pursuit of legal interventions to control the sale and use of tobacco products. This article originally appeared in the December,1999 issue of Newsletter of The Center for Progressive Christianity. Information and resources from the Center for Progressive Christianity are available at www.tcpc.org.


The tobacco industry likes to portray itself as just another American business, but the facts point to precisely the opposite conclusion. Evidence uncovered in the recent tobacco litigation demonstrates that the tobacco companies deliberately deceived the public into believing that their products were safe and non-addictive while conspiring to keep the industry's knowledge to the contrary secret, manipulated the nicotine delivery of their products to better addict consumers, and targeted children in their advertising campaigns.

Cigarette smoking is the single most preventable cause of premature death in the United States. Well over 419,000 Americans die each year from causes attributable to smoking, and tobacco is responsible for more deaths in the United States than alcohol consumption, illicit drug use, violence, automobile crashes and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) combined!

The tobacco industry tries to portray smoking as a matter of adult choice. In 1988, however, the U.S. Surgeon General confirmed that nicotine causes a physical addiction similar to and as powerful as those caused by cocaine or heroin. Although smoking involves an initial decision to start, it quickly becomes not a matter of free choice but one of addiction. And most nicotine addiction begins not during adulthood, but during adolescence. Eighty-two percent of adult smokers began smoking as teenagers.

The tobacco industry's advertising plays a preeminent role in encouraging children to smoke. Camel, Marlboro, and Newport - the three most heavily advertised brands of cigarettes - are smoked by 86 percent of the teenage market. Every major tobacco advertising campaign has corresponded to a major increase in smoking among 14 - to 17-year-olds. The tobacco industry denies that it targets minors in its promotional campaigns, but evidence garnered from internal industry documents says otherwise.

In 1954, cigarette manufacturers promised the American public that they would lead the effort to discover and disclose the truth about smoking and health. They have, instead, systematically suppressed and concealed material information about the health consequences of cigarette smoking and waged an aggressive campaign of disinformation. Cigarette manufacturers have taken these actions, even though they have known for years, based on their own secret research, that their products eventually injure or kill consumers when used exactly as intended. Certain cigarette manufacturers also developed sophisticated techniques to manipulate the nicotine delivery of cigarettes to better addict consumers.

Prior to 1994, the tobacco industry was able to fend off litigation by steadfastly maintaining that its products were not harmful and aggressively pursuing a "king of the mountain" strategy. This strategy was succinctly described by a tobacco industry attorney in an internal memo to his colleagues:

The aggressive posture we have taken regarding depositions and discovery in general continues to make these cases extremely burdensome and expensive for plaintiffs' lawyers. . . To paraphrase General Patton, the way we won these cases was not by spending all of [R.J.Reynolds'] money, but by making that other son of a bitch spend all his.

The deceptive and abusive litigation tactics used by the tobacco companies failed in the third wave of tobacco litigation. The class action lawsuits and the state attorney general medical cost reimbursement suits of the third wave made extensive use of the new evidence of tobacco industry misbehavior garnered from thousands of internal industry documents and provided by former tobacco industry researchers and executives. The attorneys prosecuting the cases of the third wave of tobacco litigation also used a number of innovative legal devices, strategies or tactics designed to circumvent the tobacco industry's abusive discovery practices and to overcome the tremendous resource advantages enjoyed by the industry in previous litigation.

On November 23, 1998, the tobacco companies signed a settlement agreement that brought the state attorney general medical cost reimbursement actions and most of the class action lawsuits to a close. The multistate Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) does almost nothing by its terms to curb the sale and use of tobacco products. The MSA does, however, provide settling states with "significant funding for the advancement of public health, [and] the implementation of important tobacco-related public health measures. . ."

To date, only a few states have dedicated their tobacco settlement funds to the public health and tobacco control causes envisioned in the MSA. Most states are spending the money instead on other public projects. The net result is that the tobacco industry is free to continue its unprincipled behavior. The best thing that progressive Christians can do to curb the tobacco industry's deadly behavior is to help with the efforts in their respective states to dedicate tobacco settlement funds to public health and tobacco control purposes. Anyone interested in more information can check out the Tobacco Control Resource Center's web site at www.tobacco.neu.edu Anyone who wants to help with this fight can contact me at 800-387-7848.


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