- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 25, 2004

The federal government seems willing to use any tool it takes, even an illegitimate one, to squash tobacco companies. While many may applaud this, they shouldn’t. All citizens have something to lose in this.

Now a $280 billion lawsuit is under way that could bankrupt the tobacco industry — or at least major segments of it — if the Justice Department succeeds. The tool of choice is the Racketeers Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act, loosely framed, gotcha piece legislation adopted in 1970 to help police and prosecutors put mobsters behind bars.

That law, best known as RICO, has been a huge success, and it is easy to see why: Among its many trespasses of normal legal protections, the law defines as racketeering — usually thought of as a continuously illegal business — the committing of two crimes by the same group over a 10-year period. For law enforcement, RICO has been a joy. Gangsters dread it.

Should tobacco companies now have to dread it, too? No one can argue that the duplicitous behavior of some tobacco executives was anything but awful. Even the tobacco companies don’t argue their past virtue anymore, although their lawyers are given to euphemisms — “mistakes” is a word they embrace — when discussing it.

But the reprehensibility of Big Tobacco does not entitle the government to use a bad law intended for something else entirely to wreck the industry, least of all when other facts are considered: The federal government was actually complicit in some of the practices now regarded as fraudulent; the public by and large knew of the dangers of cigarette smoking; the industry is legal and reached a $206 billion settlement with all but four states just six years ago, and it has been going the extra mile since to warn people about its product’s health risks.

There are other, legitimate ways in which tobacco can be closely regulated or even outlawed, if our democracy chooses to do so. When the government abuses its powers in a case like this and gets away with it, every institution, every person is more at risk; legal safeguards have been diminished for all.

The ends, in short, do not justify the means.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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