by David Sisler

One of life's pleasures, thanks to the Internet, continues to be the daily reading of Bill Watterson's great comic strip, "Calvin and Hobbes."

In a recent strip, the little boy and his tiger are walking in the woods. Calvin says, "I don't believe in ethics any more. As far as I am concerned, the end justifies the means. Get what you can while the getting's good -- that's what I say. It's a dog-eat-dog world, so I'll do whatever I have to do, and let others argue about whether it's right or not."

At that point Hobbes pushes Calvin into a large mud puddle. "Why did you do that?" Calvin demands.

"You were in my way," Hobbes says. "Now you're not. The end justifies the means."

Calvin, totally covered in sticky, brown mud says, "I didn't mean for everyone, you dolt! Just me!"

This spring our back yard is a candidate for "just me." The grass is barely visible because of the "gum balls." These tree droppings are two inches in diameter with a solid center and spikes that extend outward in all directions. They thump against the lawn mower like bumble bees trapped in a coffee can. The offending tree is in our neighbor's yard and more gum balls fall onto our property than on theirs. Bonnie won't allow me to rake them up and throw them back over the fence, so I suggested we sue.

My litigious leanings and Calvin's me-first philosophy seem to have found mirror images in Florida. In a landmark case against the tobacco industry, the AP reported that two smokers, "representing an estimated 500,000 sick Floridians in the first class-action lawsuit against Big Tobacco to reach trial," were awarded $6.9 million dollars. The same jury which determined that "five cigarette companies and two industry groups conspired to produce a dangerous, addictive product that causes 29 illnesses, including cancer and heart disease" could award $300 billion to the 500,000 class-action smokers.

If you smoke, there may be nothing worse than a living ex-smoker -- and put me into that category. I started stealing my Dad's cigarettes when I was in junior high school, quit smoking before Bonnie and I were married, stayed off the weed for fourteen years, stupidly picked them up again for four years, and have been nicotine free again for twelve years. So it was with a sense of personal involvement that I read about the Miami lawsuit.

Mary Farnan is one of the Florida smokers who stands to collect in the case which experts say may bankrupt the tobacco industry. "You can imagine how I feel," she said after the award was announced. Many were touched by the scene of Ms. Farnan, her body ravaged by cancer, hugging her ten-year-old daughter. You had to read deep into the story to learn that this plaintiff was a former three-pack-a-day smoker who incredibly continued smoking through her first course of radiation and chemotherapy. Whatever happened to the idea of personal responsibility?

My Dad started smoking when he was five-years-old. Contributing factors in his death were emphysema and heart disease brought on by smoking. He quit smoking several years before he died, but the damage had been done. More or less jokingly, I asked Dad, after he had stopped, if he had ever considered suing for damages. He snapped his fingers and said, "I did. For about that long."

When I pressed him for more information, he said, "I knew if I won, you and your brother would have a lot of money after I died, and I didn't want you to do anything foolish with it. So not suing seemed the better idea." He smiled and continued, "But more than that, how could I, with a clean conscience, sue cigarette makers because I voluntarily used their legal product? They never put a cigarette into my mouth and forced me to inhale, and I learned to read a long time ago. The warning on the side of the pack was a constant reminder that I was hurting myself every time I lit up."

Certain facts are no longer in dispute. The tobacco industry lied to us for years. They knew their product was killing us. They altered the ingredients to make cigarettes even more addictive than they were naturally. They manipulated research to keep us coughing up the price of pack. Do not misunderstand: I have zero sympathy for the tobacco industry, but everyone of us who has ever smoked, did so because we wanted to smoke. And now we want them to pay us for damages because we exercised our personal right of free choice? Calvin, you have too many disciples!


Published in The Augusta Chronicle 4/15/2000

Copyright 2000 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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