Big Trouble Looms for Big Tobacco

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SAN FRANCISCO: Smoking has just become an unbelievably expensive habit. A California jury late Wednesday awarded a cancerous smoker $50 million in punitive damages - after a $1.5 million compensatory-damage award the day before - against Philip Morris, the world's leading cigarette maker. Patricia Henley, a former three-pack-a-day smoker with inoperable lung cancer, charged Philip Morris with hooking her at age 15 and withholding information that would have scared her off long ago. Henley is only the third person in history to take Big Tobacco to court and win, and hers is the largest award of its kind. The verdict comes just when the cigarette makers, fresh from a $206 billion immunity deal with states in November, thought it was safe to start assisting our suicides again.

That settlement, of course, doesn't cover individual or class-action suits, only suits by the states themselves. But the Big Five are just starting to have Big Problems with the Little People. Usually, "the tobacco companies just bury them in a pile of lawyers," says TIME Washington correspondent Bruce Van Voorst: The other two court victories, both against Brown & Williamson, were overturned on appeal, and the same could yet happen to Henley's. But if the award survives, it could spark a chain reaction of civil suits, and each plaintiff's lawyer will be sure to remember the lucrative argument made Wednesday by Henley's attorney: that a big cash award was the only way to get Philip Morris's attention. The tobacco industry, after years of having juries treat them like Jack Kevorkian, are left to wonder if they've finally become Charles Manson. With deep pockets. As for the terminally ill Henley: "I feel wonderful," she said.