Cigarette smokers take a risk. They might get lung cancer. If they do, send the hospital bills to the cigarette makers because it's all their fault. That seems to be the message you might get from the tobacco settlement in which these manufacturers have agreed to pay for smoking-related health care costs. This is strange thinking, yet it seems to be taking root. It muddles the principle that individuals primarily ought to be responsible for the risks they take. Confused thinking about our personal responsibilities leads to confused thinking about our rights as free individuals.
In this case, the people who do use a product responsibly may have their rights curtailed. The rights of the manufacturer are also threatened. When rights are threatened, we should all be alarmed.
What happened to the cigarette makers certainly gave this trend a boost. Granted, it does appear that some of these companies knew of the hazards of smoking early on, concealed or denied this information, and may have even purposefully manipulated the level of tobacco's most addictive ingredients.
Even so, the cigarette companies aren't the only ones to blame. The risks of smoking have been known for decades. People who decide to smoke ought to be responsible for the consequences of their choices. The tobacco settlement seems to ignore this principle entirely.
Now, various advocacy groups are beginning to look at the possibility that other classes of manufacturers might be vulnerable to litigation. Gun makers are a prime example. If gun makers can be found to have acted in ways that contributed to the misuse of guns, perhaps they can be held liable for the cost of gun crimes and accidental shootings.
Where will this kind of thinking lead? What about companies that make alcoholic beverages? Think of all the damages, injuries and deaths caused by drunk drivers. How about the cost to society incurred by compulsive gamblers who impoverish their families? Surely the makers of slot machines are aware of this inevitability. What about all those companies that make junk food? Illnesses and disabilities related to poor diet are a substantial drain on our health care system.
Perhaps the absurdity of these extremes will force us to reassert the principles of personal responsibility and thus protect our rights. The penalty for abusing or misusing a product must stay squarely with the user. Making manufacturers pay the price sends the wrong message.