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Long time tobacco control advocates and newcomers alike are likely to benefit from Dan Zegart's book, Civil warriors: the legal siege on the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry's assault on mankind is arguably the biggest story of corporate greed and wrongdoing of all time, yet the number of books on it is astonishingly few.
Zegart spent five years personally shadowing the key figures for this comprehensive legal saga. He employs his considerable skills as an investigative journalist to weave the page turning saga about how the tobacco industry was finally dragged, kicking and screaming, into a long overdue era of megabuck settlements and stunning courtroom losses.
The story opens with a compelling scene: product liability attorney Ron Motley is sitting by his mother's hospital bed, watching her endure a slow, suffocating death from cigarette induced heart and lung deterioration. As he looks down upon her emaciated body, enshrouded in tubes and plastic and hooked up to a ventilator, he vows vengeance against the cigarette makers: “I'm going to get 'em, Mom. I swear, if it's the last thing I'll do, I'll get 'em.” This somewhat melodramatic but gripping scene makes the broad case for society's general anger against the tobacco industry, and provides a meaningful start to the story of Civil warriors.
The publication of Zegart's book comes on the heels of the largest punitive damage award ever levelled against the tobacco industry and a wave of anticorporate protests at World Trade Organization gatherings in Seattle and Washington, DC. Both events set the stage for a book about the start of Big Tobacco's downfall to be very timely if not downright appealing. Yet what is missing from the book is the paradoxical fact that the much lauded, multi billion dollar Master Settlement Agreement to which Motley's work led depends almost wholly on the continued sale of cigarettes to perpetuate it. Absurdly, Motely's greatest achievement actually made it far less likely that makers of the product that killed his mother would be reined in any time soon. Mentioning this fact would have brought the book full circle, but would also have tarnished its main character just a little too much for good storytelling.
Of particular interest was the book's description of David Hardy, of Shook, Hardy and Bacon, the industry's law firm until Hardy's death in 1976. Portrayed as a tough, scrappy mid-westerner who made good, Hardy was described as the architect of the industry's long successful courtroom strategies. The influential relationship Hardy had over Gary Huber, a Harvard researcher who conducted research on behalf of the tobacco industry for many years, was key to providing the industry with the credibility it needed to carry out its deception. Among tobacco control advocates, Huber is both cheered as a whistleblower and reviled as a turncoat. For those with less knowledge about Huber's overall part in the industry's schemes, the book describes why.
While the story centres primarily on Motley, most tobacco control advocates undoubtedly realise that it wasn't the efforts of just one person, but of many passionate and driven people, that brought the industry to the legal threshold where it finds itself today. To his credit, Zegart brings many of these other important characters into the story. Keeping track of all of them, and the role each played, however, can be somewhat of a challenge for the reader, especially those new to this topic.
Civil warriors is a particularly enjoyable read for those obsessed with tobacco control, but I wondered if it would hold as much appeal for those with less interest in the subject? To find out, I introduced the book to two relatives, my sister and brother-in-law (she a 50-ish high school teacher from New York and he a retired dentist who claims to hold stock in Philip Morris). Both declared the book fascinating and one they might buy themselves, showing that it can indeed appeal to people who are not involved in tobacco control on a daily basis.
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