For the decades of lies promulgated by cigarette makers about the safety of their product, they deserved the $145 billion class action judgment a Florida jury levied on them Friday.
However, let's be realistic. This was jurors sending a message to Big Tobacco, but not much more. Smokers - or their survivors - will be lucky if they ever see a dime of those punitive damages. And it's not just because tobacco companies will tie the award up in court for decades to come or because Florida Judge Robert Kaye may lower damages as judges often do.
The primary reason plaintiffs will be denied significant financial relief is because it would gut the $257 billion settlement the states and industry agreed to two years ago.
That money is supposed to be dribbled out to the 50 states over 25 years in multi-million dollar increments, presumably to fight smoking. But many states, including Georgia and South Carolina, are counting on the windfall to help pay for other programs.
Does anyone really think the politicians are going to share that pot of gold with anybody? There's no way the Florida verdict, or others like it, will get a piece of the action that state attorneys-general painfully negotiated.
The only newcomer allowed at this big buck trough will be Attorney General Janet Reno. She's preparing a suit against Big Tobacco to ensure the federal government gets in on the pot of gold, too.
The dirty little secret here is that Big Government, formerly Big Tobacco's foe, is now Big Tobacco's ally. It has as much of an interest in keeping people smoking and cigarette-makers prosperous as the companies themselves do.
The last thing government wants is for the industry to go bankrupt - and you can be sure politicians in 50 states and the District of Columbia won't let that happen. They won't lose their cash cow.
Governments now get more money from cigarette sales than the cigarette-makers do. Watch for another grand deal to be struck between Big Tobacco and Big Government. It will likely involve some regulation of the industry that will make the politicians look good and keep the revenue stream flowing, but not to the people who were really damaged by the industry's lies and deceptions - smokers and their families.
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