AUTHOR ESSAY: Hooked on the Big Tobacco Trials

Dan Zegart ’77 traces his journey from smoker to author of Civil Warriors (Delacorte Press), the story of the people who fought to hold the cigarette industry accountable.

I was a fledgling newspaper reporter in June 1988 when I read that a jury in New Jersey had ordered a tobacco company to pay a lung cancer victim’s family $400,000. This puzzled me. I smoked. I smoked in the newsroom. I smoked in my car. And I smoked in the second–floor apartment I shared with an alcoholic electrician who not only smoked, but fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand and burst into flames during a game show.

I dumped glasses of water on him until he just kind of smoldered a little. But neither of us took the hint, certainly not me. By then had I been smoking for nearly 20 years, time enough to have made a substantial investment in cigarettes. As a teen in Nyack, N.Y., I invented countless rendezvous, library visits, and other phantoms so I could escape my parents and smoke. I sat with girlfriends at the foot of Gesner Avenue by the Hudson River at midnight growing gradually insensate in sub–zero cold, smoking.

There were months at Wesleyan when my expenses consisted largely of Maxwell House and Marlboro Lights. I lived in New York throughout the ’80s playing in rock bands, smoking furiously, and indeed, the clubs were like some kind of runaway secondhand smoke experiment. I also scratched out a living as carpenter, and when one contractor told me my cigarette breaks took too much time away from banging nails, I had to admit he was right, so I walked off the job. I would have considered the idea of suing anyone over cigarettes utterly ridiculous.

A couple of years later, I began to experience a peculiar sensation in my chest, like a writhing squirrel, episodes that weren’t so much painful as extremely unpleasant. It happened almost every time I lit up a cigarette, even though I had “switched down” to Trues. My doctor said nicotine was garbling the nerve impulses to my heart, causing premature ventricular contractions. I could quit or risk a heart attack. I was 35. I quit. Within a week, my symptoms had all but disappeared.

That was the first time I realized a cigarette manufacturer might be something other than just another consumer products company.

The second involved my Uncle Johnny. He was my mother’s kid brother and they both took up the habit as children. My mother finally shook it, but by then she had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. When Johnny came to visit in the summer of 1992, he was attached to an oxygen bottle but still smoking. His emphysema worsened and the suffocation spells lengthened until, one morning, he took a rifle and shot himself rather than endure such a very long spiral of decay.

Some ancient part of my brain that recognizes evil probably had grasped the significance of all of this, but it was Johnny’s illness that drove it home. If there are synchronicities between our interior and exterior lives, an important one promptly snapped into place, because it was just at this time that I began to investigate, as a newspaper reporter who’d by now moved to New Jersey, how the tobacco companies were pouring money into front groups whose mission was to “reform” the laws governing civil suits to make it harder to win money damages against them. The New Jersey chapter was called Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, and I discovered that its director was Philip Morris’s lead lobbyist in Trenton and that CALA’s headquarters happened to be in his office. It turned out that Louisiana was also involved in a struggle over so–called tort reform and was simultaneously home to an audacious lawsuit called Castano that would try to hold the tobacco industry responsible for manipulating the nicotine in cigarettes to addict 50 million American smokers. Intrigued, I flew to New Orleans and met the Castano attorneys at their strategy conference in August of 1994. Deeply tanned and flamboyantly wellheeled, they were an altogether different breed of lawyer from the prosecutors and defense attorneys with whom I’d spent much time while covering crime for newspapers. In four words,they were not heroic.

On the other hand, product liability lawyers were then the only force with even a remote chance to prevail in a battle with extraordinary significance for world health. When I met Ron Motley, a South Carolinian and important pillar of the Castano suit, I was already thinking about a book. I met Motley at his room in the Windsor Court Hotel and found a man with a luminous intellect who was full of innovative anti–tobacco strategies along with a kind of crazy, sad, hyperactive charm. I wanted to write a book not about issues, but the characters who lived them. Motley had lost a mother to emphysema and saw smoking and health suits as a mission.

The cigarette manufacturers had never been defeated in court, but now there was a sense of critical mass being achieved, a boiling pot of exposes and Congressional hearings and men and women defecting from corporate laboratories. Without entirely meaning to at first, I went along, the fascinated observer. I continued to go along for six years, through 33 states and a trip to Indonesia, following Motley, his minions, his opponents, and various of their strange bedfellows, political, legal and otherwise. The result was not justice or even compensation for the victims of cigarettes. To understand exactly what it was, you’ll have to read my book. Suffice it to say that I believe Motley achieved a major advance over the status quo ante, and the last chapter of this story has not, in truth, been written. In the meantime, though the tale may or may not have a hero, anytime I need proof of a great wrong, I just put a hand on my heart, which has good reason to remember, and very truly will never be able to forget.