Why cigarettes are like private campaign contributions: path dependence.

August 19, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

A couple days ago, after much work and careful deliberation, a federal court declared the obvious

A federal judge Thursday ruled that cigarette makers were liable for a decades-long conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking but declined to impose financial penalties on the industry.

In her 1,653 page opinion, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler wrote:

Cigarette smoking causes disease, suffering, and death. Despite internal recognition of this fact, defendants have publicly denied, distorted, and minimized the hazards of smoking for decades.

Why is this story even news?  The dangers of tobacco and the deceit of tobacco companies have long been obvious.  There has never been a more damning case against any industry.  See here. See also, the Executive Summary of Preliminary Proposed Finding of Fact in US v. Philip Morris, et al.

Cigarette smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke kills nearly 440,000 Americans every year. The annual number of deaths due to cigarette smoking is substantially greater than the annual number of deaths due to illegal drug use, alcohol consumption, automobile accidents, fires, homicides, suicides and AIDS combined. Approximately one out of every five deaths that occur in the United States is caused by cigarette smoking.

At the end of 1953, the chief executives of the five major cigarette manufacturers in the United States at the time – Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard, and American – met at the Plaza Hotel in New York City with representatives of the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton and agreed to jointly conduct a long term public relations campaign to counter the growing evidence linking smoking as a cause of serious diseases.

The meeting spawned an association-in-fact enterprise to execute a fraudulent scheme in furtherance of their overriding common objective – to preserve and enhance the tobacco industry’s profits by maximizing the numbers of smokers and number of cigarettes smoked and to avoid adverse liability judgments. The fraudulent scheme would continue for the next five decades.

Cigarettes are so obviously dangerous that recently, in working to ban smoking, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke of an almost unimaginable number of deaths over the next century:

There are roughly 5 million people who are killed by tobacco in this world each year, and, unless we take urgent action this century, a billion people will die from smoking,” the Mayor declared. 

That statistic begged for the morbid illustration I offered in “A billion people can’t be wrong.”

But those tobacco companies are still out there, making enormous amounts of money selling products that each year kill almost 150 times the number of Americans who died in the 9/11 attacks.

How do they get away with it?  With money.  Lots and lots of money paid to politicians.   How else?  Because these companies got their product entrenched in our culture early on.  People got used to smoking for decades before the danger became crystal clear

Defendants’ internal documents acknowledge that their public denial that smoking cigarettes causes disease both was contrary to the overwhelming medical and scientific consensus – established through extensive epidemiological and other scientific investigation by the early 1950s – and was intended to convince smokers and potential smokers that there remained genuine scientific “controversy” about whether smoking caused disease.

I’m not relishing discussing this sad tale of death by cigarette.  After all, the lung cancer death of a good friend is still fresh for me.  Most people reading this have also probably seen the long and painful death of at least a friend or two thanks to the cold-hearted high-profit PR accomplishments of tobacco companies.

The subject of this post is not really tobacco companies, though.  Rather, I want to talk about path dependence. The term has many meanings. I don’t mean it the trivial sense that we are where we are because of things that happened in the past.  Rather, I am concerned that our national psyche gets dragged along with the behavior of our institutions: we allow institutionalized evil to overwhelm real evidence and to thus to serve as justification for bad individual habits.

Here’s a classic case of path dependence: QWERTY

Look at the first line of letters on your keyboard: QWERTYUIOP. There’s no real reason why just those letters should be sitting there in just that order: except that one of the early sorts of type-writers had that order, and became more popular than its competitors, and so fixed the pattern more or less permanently.

We still tolerate cigarettes only because they gained a foothold long ago–government, Madison Avenue and even doctors (some of them appeared on cigarette commercials) were complicit. 

Consider this hypothetical:  Assume that it’s 2006 and there is no such thing as a cigarette.  But suddenly, a small company starts selling newfangled cigarettes.  Epidemiologists and biologists of 2006 would conduct studies on this (new and intriguing) product and quickly determine that widespread use of that product would cause the deaths of millions of Americans each decade.  The new company’s factory would immediately be shut down and cigarettes would be banned.  End of story (as for as cigarettes sold legally, anyway).

Once something gets a quiet foothold, though, its raison d’etre can be its past existence.  At that point it’s not about whether something is a good (or terrible) idea.  Once it becomes culturally entrenched, it’s allowed simply because it’s been previously allowed.  The fact that something has been done a certain way impels a logic that it should continue to be done that way.  

Human actions are often not based on evidence or logic.  Path dependency is one of the many substitutes for evidence. Path dependency functions as an argument. We humans are herdlike animals–we are guided by the ghosts of our past.

Our acceptance of tolerating cigarettes made me wonder what else Americans tolerate only because it has been tolerated in the past?  What else do we tolerate, even though it is palpably harmful to our country?  What is so odious that we’d laugh if someone proposed the idea for the first time today? What is so ridiculous that if anyone tried to get away with doing it for the first time today, we’d call them a scoundrel and run them out of town?  Here’s something:

Financing our national and state elections with private money.

Let’s pretend that we had been publicly financing our campaigns for many years, but someone suddenly stepped up to propose this “new” idea:

Let’s allow big corporations and wealthy individuals throw huge amounts of money at people running for public office.  Then, when those people get elected (which the recipients are likely to do because money buys access to media in this “new” system), these candidates will pay special attention to those who gave them money.  As the icing on the cake, let’s allow people and businesses to take politicians on lavish outings to golf resorts and tropical paradises.

What would the public think of this “new” idea if it were suddenly proposed for the first time in 2006?  The idea would be ridiculed and the person proposing it would be declared a scoundrel.

Well, if only we didn’t have such a thoroughly corrupt political system. It has become quietly but deeply entrenched in our system. Here’s what it amounts to:  1) our political system is in the tragic mess it is because it has been wholly corrupted by huge private financial contributions; 2) legalized bribes distort and pervert all political dialogues regarding any issue on which a large business might be affected; 3) large businesses are affected by most political debates; 4) private money thrown at politicians is the reason most politicians spend disproportionate time with their contributors and spend no time with people like you and me 5) our national political system is not capable of holding a genuine debate or passing un-corrupt legislation on any major issue; 6) the power of big political money is so overwhelming that our politicians have been rendered clueless about the scope and danger of the problem; and 7) The system is helpless to fix the system.

Perhaps, it would help to start calling elections what they really are: auctions.  And let’s call “contributions” what they have become: bribes. And what about the system that encourages corporations to contribute to candidates of both major parties for their own economic well-being? People on the street call this tactic a “protection racket” or a “shake down.”  The current system is monstrous and hideous.  It makes a mockery of every lesson we teach our children in civics classes.

We became victims of path dependence when we first allowed people to hand private money to politicians.  Now, corruption and politics have become synonymous.  Just like we (not too many years ago) were so obtuse that we allowed people to light matches and burn tobacco leaves on packed jet airplanes that were streaking through the sky, we are not so politically obtuse that we allow money to freely pass from from special interests to our new “private servant” form of government. 

We’ve got to work consciously to shake ourselves free of our past bad habits in order to see our current system for what it is.  The real question is whether we can circumvent the current system (an interlocking system of politicians, media and corporations) to get the job done.  


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Category: American Culture, Campaign Finance Reform, Corruption, Health, History, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    "…What else do we tolerate, even though it is palpably harmful to our country? What is so odious that we’d laugh if someone proposed the idea for the first time today? What is so ridiculous that if anyone tried to get away with doing it for the first time today, we’d call them a scoundrel and run them out of town?"

    Here I thought you were leading into a discussion about invading Iraq, and Bush's folly of using sunk costs to justify ongoing losses (see http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=37).

  2. cigara says:

    In USA cigarettes’ distribution was promoted by the emergence of some new sorts of "light" tobacco, for example "White Burley", and of course, the invention of the first tobacco machine in 1880. During the next decade cigarettes surpassed cigars as regards sales volume. Soldiers, who didn’t have time to smoke a cigar or pipe, began to smoke cigarettes.

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