Ten days ago, a Florida jury awarded an eye-popping $23 billion judgment against the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. for causing the death of a 36-year-old chain smoker who died of lung cancer.
Besides the size of the award, which surely will be reduced on appeal, what interested me about this case was a comment by the plaintiff's attorney about what led the jury to arrive at such a figure.
"The jury was outraged with the conspiracy to conceal that smoking was not only addictive but that there were deadly chemicals in tobacco," attorney Chris Chestnut said.
What stoked their outrage, he added, was a 1994 video clip. It showed the CEOs of the seven largest tobacco companies testifying in a congressional hearing that nicotine was not addictive and they were unconvinced that it caused lung cancer.
Those lies flew in the face of overwhelming research to the contrary, including many internal tobacco company documents that concluded otherwise.
At the hearing, one by one, the CEOs said straight-faced and under oath, "I believe nicotine is not addictive."
James Johnston, CEO of R.J. Reynolds, went further, saying at one point in the hearing that smoking "was no more harmful than drinking coffee or eating Twinkies."
That remark drew a quick rebuttal from California Rep. Henry Waxman.
"The difference between cigarettes and Twinkies," he said starring at Johnston, "is death."
As deceitful as their testimony was 20 years ago, it had the beneficial effect of adding momentum to anti-smoking efforts.
In 1998, the nation's largest tobacco companies agreed to what is still the largest civil litigation settlement in U.S. history. The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement provided for payments of at least $206 billion to the states over 25 years. Kentucky's share is estimated at $3.45 billion.
The agreement also imposed a host of marketing restrictions and banned ad campaigns targeting teens, such as the most popular one featuring cartoon character Joe Camel.
The settlement's limits on ads aimed at young people, however, don't apply to e-cigarettes, which weren't sold then. They have surged in use among youths in recent years, and ad tactics similar to ones that turned school-age kids into cigarette smokers are introducing many to nicotine through "vaping." New marketing rules are needed.
One of the country's most relentless and effective crusaders against smoking was Dr. Charles Everett Koop, who served as U.S. surgeon general under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
I interviewed him in 1994 a few weeks after the congressional hearing. He was still steamed up, calling it "one of the most contemptible scenes in American corporate history." He was particularly incensed by the industry's continued emphasis on marketing to teenagers.
"The tobacco companies know that they have the best chance of hooking people who are under 18," he said. "That's why the Joe Camel campaign has been so successful."
A staunch conservative, Koop surprised people by going after cigarette companies so aggressively. His annual reports hammered away at the devastating impact of tobacco use, and he helped persuade Congress to pass a stronger warning label law. During his eight-year tenure, the U.S. smoking rate dropped from 38 percent to 27 percent.
(The U.S. rate has since fallen to just under 20 percent, though Kentucky continues to lead the nation with a 30 percent rate. On the positive side, the state has seen a big drop in high school cigarette use, declining from 24.1 percent in 2011 to 17.9 percent last year.)
When I asked Koop why he had focused so much time and energy on smoking, he put it this way:
"Why have Americans been so complacent about tobacco, about nicotine addiction? If any other substance were killing half a million people a year, the public would be up in arms .... Cigarette smoking is associated with more death and illness than drugs, alcohol, automobile accidents and AIDS combined."
Koop died last year at the age of 96. Had he been around to read about the $23 billion judgment and the key role the 1994 hearing played in bringing it, he would have cheered.
Steve Wilson is executive editor of The Paducah Sun. You can reach him at
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