The People vs. Big Tobacco review
When the CEOs of Big Tobacco sat before a House committee and denied, one by one, that nicotine was addictive, America's credulity snapped like a rotten rubber band.
Everyone who has ever smoked knows how excruciating it is to try to quit, just as every smoker knows and has known that cigarettes are bad for one's health. At the end of World War II, half the adult population smoked. Tobacco was the number one non-food crop in the U.S. In a Memphis hospital room in 1993, Attorney Michael Lewis stood looking at the emaciated face and body of a family friend and, upon taking his leave of the room to return to Clarksdale, Mississippi, began to wonder as lawyers are wont to do how much it was costing families and taxpayers to provide the kind of intensive care that cancer patients require toward the end of their days. Even before he left Memphis, Lewis was toying with an idea. Since Big Tobacco nearly always won in court skirmishes it had lost only twice in decades why not change the focus in the courts? Instead of arguing that tobacco kills folks, he would get his home state of Mississippi to sue the companies to recoup public money spent treating people the aged and indigent who got sick from smoking.
Lewis decided to take the idea to an Ole Miss friend who happened to be the attorney general for the state, Mike Moore. Moore was widely known as a Southern populist politician who did not shrink from tough challenges.
Thus was born a small southern whirlwind that barely rustled the leaves of tobacco in the far-flung fields of agriculture and commerce. But the little wind was to get help from unexpected sources.
One was Merrell Williams, a man hired as a paralegal at the Louisville firm of Wyatt, Tarrant ∧ Combs. It turned out that his job was to browse through documents from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co., a firm client. Williams, a man who read everything closely, didn't read much before he found dynamite in the form of documents detailing the sweeping effects of nicotine on the human body. He promptly stole 4,000 pages of documents. Then there's the "whistle-blower" a man named Jeffrey Wigand, research chief for Brown and Williamson, who began leaking deadly secrets of ways in which the tobacco companies were working to make nicotine more potent. The FDA was now involved.
So here is the inside story of the march toward a final settlement of Big Tobacco with the states. But first there had to be an agreement among states' attorneys general to join in the suits against the companies. Attorneys general are rarely known for unanimity on much of anything.
There were differences, leaks of information, walkouts, and bitterness during secret battles. This book does a masterful job of detailing the trials and tribulations that occurred before that day when Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore stood in front of a microphone in a Washington hotel and announced that Big Tobacco had just conceded the biggest legal battle in history $368.5 billion.
The story is not altogether finished, but it is amazing to read how it got to the place it is now.