June 11, 2001 -- Richard Boeken smoked two packs a day for over 40 years. He averaged a cigarette every 25 minutes of his waking hours, starting in 1957 at age 13. And now the cancer-ridden Boeken has reaped the rewards of his habit. On Wednesday, a Los Angeles court ruled that cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris is liable for $3 billion in punitive damages for failing to properly inform Boeken of the dangers of smoking. This court-sponsored immunity from personal responsibility is a stronger threat to America than smoking itself.

The travesty of the judgment lies not in the size of the damage award, but in the assertion that Boeken is faultless. At the root of this judgment lies the presumption that individuals are incapable of controlling their own behavior. Boeken would have us believe that addiction and false advertising account for the nearly 600,000 cigarettes he lit during forty-plus years of chain smoking. The Philip Morris executives may as well have held the matches to Boeken's Marlboros as he lay strapped to the hoods of their Cadillacs, their influence on him was so powerful.
And yet, consider the opportunities Boeken had to judge the evidence objectively and quit:
In 1964, when he had been smoking for just seven years, the now-landmark Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health warned of the link between smoking and disease. Amidst the storm of news stories that followed, he chose to continue his two-pack-a-day habit;
The next year, in 1965, warning labels first appeared on cigarette packs. Boeken would see this warning (in its various forms) on over 24,000 packs during his next 34 years of smoking;
And in one of his better charades, Boeken commented on NBC's “Today,” "I didn't believe [Philip Morris] would lie about the facts that they were putting out on television and radio." Broadcast ads for cigarettes were banned in 1971, and apparently Boeken managed to incubate himself against the saturation of anti-smoking media that followed. His habit continued for 28 years after television cigarette advertising disappeared.
The links between heavy smoking and lung cancer are ingrained in even the most thickheaded among us, and yet so many civil-suit plaintiffs pretend to exist in a knowledge vacuum. Sadly, the jury’s tolerance for Boeken’s show of ignorance outmuscled their sense of justice, as they awarded him the largest tobacco settlement for an individual to date. The spirit of such verdicts suggests that long-term smokers are privileged to ignore the consequences of their actions, so long as cigarette-company defendants have money to spare.
No sum of money, however, can erase the reality that chain smokers like Boeken purchase their own cigarettes and light their own matches—and repeat this routine tens of thousands of times. The motions of smoking are choices that belong exclusively to the individual. Smoking is a solitary activity; there are no bands of assailants forcing cigarettes to smokers' lips.
Like anyone else, a smoker has the right to make his own decisions. People are free to value smoking and assume the long-term health risks. There is integrity in any choice that is conscious and thoughtful of its results.
Once people stop respecting the absolute nature of consequences, however, they risk losing freedom. The excuse of addiction is a dangerous path, as it implies that people are inherently unable to control their behavior and require herding like so many sheep. Where people will not assume responsibility for themselves and demand the freedom to do so, the government will fill the void. Where plaintiffs plead gross ignorance and prostitute their integrity for the sake of a court award, the prospects for government regulation of personal behavior are ripe. Personal liberty cannot thrive without personal responsibility.


Donate to The Atlas Society

Did you enjoy this article? If so, please consider making a donation. Our digital channels garner over 1 million views per year. Your contribution will help us to achieve and maintain this impact.

× Close Window

logo cymk 400x200

Newsletter Signup

Sign up for our email newsletter to receive the most recent news and articles directly to your inbox.