What Penalty for Purveyors of Death?

Thomas Brandt is a Washington-based health policy consultant

There is an irony to evil. The shooter in a drug gang killing will be prosecuted aggressively, “to the full extent of the law,” as they say. So will the murderer of a gas station attendant, the child abuser and so forth, as they should. However, in the universe of man’s inhumanity to man, these are small change.

The irony is that those who manage the mega-atrocities often retire to villas, rule nations or run billion-dollar business empires. Most of those who ordered the mass murders in Bosnia now lead the government or the army. Most of those who ran the Holocaust death camps went back to their families and jobs after World War II.

So it goes. Kill one person and your only hope is to go undetected. Kill a thousand or a million people, and your power will grow.

Here’s a current example of the irony of evil. Pierre Salinger, famous as a cigar smoker and former press secretary to President Kennedy and recently a Washington lobbyist for a major tobacco company, placed an op-ed piece in USA Today that likened antitobacco groups to Nazis. The gall of this comparison takes your breath away. Tobacco over the years has killed many more than 10 million people. And the body count grows every moment.

The question now before the nation is how accountable should the tobacco company chief executives be in light of the now overwhelming and irrefutable evidence that their product kills more than 400,000 people a year just in the United States.


Late in April, 1,000 physicians, cancer researchers, health care providers and cancer survivors, representing the nation’s most esteemed medical institutions, met in Washington and considered this issue. They voted, unanimously, to push the envelope.

They requested Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to create “a select panel to review relevant federal statutes and legal precedents to determine the potential or future liability of the tobacco industry for the diseases, deaths and staggering costs to the nation caused by their products when used as intended by these companies.”

They asked for a review of “the full range of potential liabilities, from financial to the possible personal or criminal liability of tobacco company chief executives because of the deaths caused by their products.”

They await a reply.

The request was not made by lawyers but by researchers and doctors who treat the sick and go home at night in anguish for those with tobacco-related illnesses whom they were unable to save.

No one accuses the tobacco companies of genocidal intent. Their motive is not mass murder but monetary profit. However, the outcomes are death on a genocidal scale and one of the most profitable industries ever known. Since more than a quarter of a century of public health warnings, trumped by many billions of dollars more in tobacco marketing, have not slowed the body count, what must a country do? On paper, America values human life over profit.

Current litigation seems to back the case for stronger legal actions. More than two dozen states now have suits against tobacco companies seeking financial compensation for the states’ health care costs in treating tobacco-related illnesses. If the courts rule that the tobacco companies are liable for these health costs, then logic dictates the next question of who is liable for the much more tragic loss of so many lives. Is it the smokers or the companies that spend billions engineering and marketing one of the most addictive and deadly products ever known?

Would major liability be triggered if there is irrefutable evidence that tobacco executives hid their findings on nicotine’s addictive power and tobacco’s lethal impact on its users but publicly denied the existence of such evidence?

One last hypothetical example provides a perspective. Suppose tobacco was not yet an available product. An entrepreneur does test marketing and learns that, if skillfully promoted, tobacco’s pleasures and addictive powers would turn it into a staggeringly profitable industry.

While seeking start-up capital, the entrepreneur is asked if there is a downside. Only that its side effects would kill more than 400,000 people a year in the United States alone, he says.

We assume that no responsible lender or investor would touch such a deadly enterprise and that anyone who attempted to start it up would be imprisoned.