A Boston jury last week ordered Lorillard Inc., the tobacco company, to pay $71 million as compensation -- and another $81 million in punitive damages -- for the death of lifelong smoker Marie Evans, who died of lung cancer in 2002. Evans's son William, a Harvard-trained lawyer, claimed that Lorillard had hooked his mother on cigarettes by giving out free samples of Newports in the Boston neighborhood where she lived as a child in the 1950's and 1960's.
Lorillard denied the allegation, and apparently the only direct evidence for it was a videotaped deposition in which Marie Evans described how she began smoking at 13. But it doesn't seem implausible to me. The great majority of smokers take up the habit before turning 18, and even I can recall packs of cigarettes being handed out on Cleveland's Public Square in the late 1970's.
Yet even if it were true, how can it be just or moral to expropriate tens of millions of dollars from a company for distributing free samples of a lawful product? Why should Marie Evans's decision to smoke -- something she always knew was bad for her health -- entitle her son and estate to be showered with money? Reasonable people can debate whether cigarettes, already heavily regulated, should be banned outright. But it is not reasonable to hold tobacco companies liable for the foreseeable risks that smokers assume.
Lorillard never forced or tricked Marie Evans to use cigarettes; she became a smoker willingly. By her own account, she first received those free cigarettes when she was 9, and for years traded them for candy. Plainly it wasn't Lorillard that eventually got Evans to start smoking; if she could resist the lure of tobacco until she was 12, she could have resisted it at 13.