When Quebec Justice Brian Riordan handed down a record 15.6 billion dollar judgment against Canada’s Big Tobacco companies last week, not only was he writing a judgment of record size, but he was also making a titanic sized mistake.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a defense of Big Tobacco; outside of the world’s oil companies, weapon manufacturers and Wal-Mart, you’d be hard pressed to find a more ethically and morally bankrupt enterprise. For years, Big Tobacco spent millions in advertising, not simply to promote their products but also counter the emerging science on the lethal consequences that came with a pack of Joe Cools. They spent even more buying political support to prevent lawmakers from mandating honesty from the industry and regulating how they advertised. How much money the cancer stick industry spent fighting education and public awareness has never been counted, probably because it’s an obscenely stratospheric number, but the fact that four actors who played the rugged, manly cowboy in the infamous Marlboro TV commercials died from smoking related diseases is a more then ironic indictment of the industry. And while Big Tobacco will be paying off fines and punitive judgments south of the border for years to come, the purveyors of coffin nails have spent the past few years using their armies of expensive lawyers to bully small and developing countries from enacting educational programs and advertising restrictions similar to those we enjoy in the west. Big Tobacco has sued entire countries, sometimes under the most absurd pretenses, and countries as large as Australia have been bent to their will. Below is a clip from HBO’s Last Week with John Oliver that perfectly sums up how ludicrously powerful Big Tobacco is and how wantonly they abuse that power.

But this really isn’t about the tobacco giants. It’s about consumers.

The premise of this long running legal drama was that Canada’s Big Three-Imperial Tobacco, JTI Macdonald and Rothmans Benson and Hedges-lied about how addictive and destructive their products were. And once upon a time they absolutely did, spending an ungodly amount of money in the process. But here’s the thing, the Quebec decision was made in relation to two class action lawsuits; one on behalf of roughly 100,000 people who’ve been made sick from smoking and another 918,000 plus that complained they couldn’t quit. These are all living, breathing souls and the simple fact of the matter is if you’ve started or continued smoking any time in the last fifty years, you did so knowing full well how addictive and self-destructive smoking was. While we should all be genuinely sorry for the ugly, long term health complications thousands of smokers suffer, the ugly truth is that it is the result of their own actions.

The Canadian government has made tobacco companies put warning labels on cigarettes and other products for nearly thirty years, labels that have been growing in size and displaying increasingly graphic content (with images ranging from tumor riddled lungs to diseased gums to a drooping cigarette meant to resemble an impotent penis). They’ve prevented tobacco companies from advertising on TV and radio since 1988 and for the past several years in Ontario, retailers haven’t even been allowed to display them on their shelves, concealing them behind covers. Fines for violations are often swift and severe (governments who, despite all their bluster about the negative impact smoking has on society, hypocritically collect billions of tax dollars from a product they allow to remain legal). And while they’ve been very vocal about it and have even retaliated with lawsuits of their own, Big Tobacco has complied. Simply put, if you’re a smoker sixty years or younger in the Great White North, you knew how bad smoking was but decided to do it anyway.

Smoking may not be the dumbest thing someone can do, but it’s within shouting distance of the top of the list. I’ve had no shortage of valued friends who I’ve nagged mercilessly to give up the coffin nails, sometimes using misguided tactics, but often getting the same response-a shrug of the shoulders followed by a “I do it because I like it,” or a “it’s not that bad.” The truth is people won’t give up an addiction unless they want to and a lot of smokers simply don’t. Nor am I dismissing or belittling the merciless grip of tobacco addiction, but the truth is people have quit-millions of them to be precise-so it is possible. An entire cottage industry has sprung up to help smokers kick that particular vice and there are plenty of options available on the shelves of your local pharmacy. Perhaps the most accurate metaphor I’ve heard to describe addiction is that it’s like slavery, and your addiction holds the leash tied to your collar. I believe that to be true, but at the end of the day, if you’ve willingly raised a cigarette to your lips in the last half century, you’re the one whose chosen to be a slave and given Big Tobacco, whose made an unimaginable amount of money off of the suffering and deaths of millions, an invitation to hold your leash. In this case, suing the one holding the leash is a lazy deflection of personal responsibility and about as smart as starting the habit in the first place.

Shayne Kempton


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