Oil Hearings Nothing Compared to Tobacco Hearings on the Hill

Today’s congressional hearings, when the major oil company executives will face the public’s wrath about the BP oil spill, are being compared by some to the hearings on April 14, 1994 when the executives of the seven major cigarette makers testified before Congress about their policies. But the problem under scrutiny today is just a drop in the bucket compared to that caused by smoking, suggests Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), America’s first antismoking organization.

Smoking, then as now, kills almost half a million Americans a year in the U.S. and millions more worldwide, yet the human toll from the BP oil disaster is closer to a dozen, notes public interest law professor John Banzhaf, Executive Director of ASH.

Many in Congress are pressing BP to set up a $20 billion escrow fund to help insure that the company and its stockholders will pay for the damages they are causing to the many innocent victims. But smoking costs the American public almost $200 billion a year — 10 times the BP estimate — most of which is paid by innocent nonsmokers in the form of higher taxes to pay for excess medical care under Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs, bloated health insurance premiums to cover the costs of diseases caused or exacerbated by smoking, excess disability and time lost from work, cigarette fires, and many other causes. In short, smoking annually costs about 10 times as much as the BP disaster, and it reimposes this cost year after year after year.

At the heart of the congressional hearings featuring the tobacco executives (sometime dubbed “the seven dwarfs”) was a conspiracy (later proven in court in a major RICO case) going back decades between all of the major tobacco companies to deceive the public and lie to Congress and the rest of the government about smoking and its causes and effects. In sharp contrast, the BP matter appears to be a single isolated incident, with no evidence of an industry-wide conspiracy.

Using a variety of legal strategies later found to be deceptive as well as ruthless, cigarette makers were able to avoid all liability for any of the death, disability, and other economic losses its industry causes for many decades before the first tobacco law suits were successful. In contrast, BP has conceded financial responsibility for all of the reasonable costs of its tragedy, and has begun to pay for some — although perhaps not as fast or as completely as many would hope.

It appears that the cause of the BP explosion and oil spill was negligence — perhaps even gross negligence — brought on by a desire to save both time and money by engaging in a variety of shortcuts which substantially increased the risk of the very catastrophic harm which ultimately occurred. But no one has seriously suggested that BP’s fault and culpability goes beyond negligence.

In sharp contrast, it has been established in numerous court proceedings, where the cigarette makers have been found liable for billions of dollars, that their harmful activities went far beyond mere negligence, and instead involved fraud, deceit, racketeering activities, and other intentional wrongs. Indeed, it has been shown that they knowingly and deliberately caused death and disability by using chemicals to alter the pH of the smoke (to increase its addictiveness) and to keep cigarettes burning far longer (the direct cause of most cigarette fires and fire deaths), that they willingly sought to addict pre-teens and other young children, etc.

Even if everything BP and its CEO Tony Hayward have been accused of doing turns out to be true, their culpability pales in comparison that of the tobacco industry, argues Banzhaf, suggesting that a fair comparison would be between a person whose dog poops on private property and Bernard Madoff.

“The irony of the dramatic tobacco executive hearings was that the only major result was a law more than a decade later which even its strongest proponents admit is weak, riddled with loopholes, and apparently yet to save a single life or prevent a single addiction. Let’s hope that today’s hearings into the oil industry are somewhat more productive and successful,” says Banzhaf.

Professor of Public Interest Law at GWU,
FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,
FELLOW, World Technology Network, and
Executive Director and Chief Counsel
Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)
America’s First Antismoking Organization
2013 H Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006, USA
(202) 659-4310 // (703) 527-8418
15 June, 2010

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