The tobacco epidemic continues to spread around the world. Tobacco is unique – no other product kills half of its consumers when used exactly as intended. If tobacco products were released as new products today, they would quickly be banned, and civil and criminal cases would be brought against tobacco corporations for the harms caused by tobacco.
Below are several other consumer products that have resulted in criminal cases. While each of these cases represents a terrible loss of life, all of them pale in comparison to the number of lives claimed by tobacco.
The Pinto Case – State v. Ford Motor Co., Cause No. 11-431 (1980)
In 1978, three teenage girls driving in a Ford Pinto were hit from behind on Highway 33 in northern Indiana. Within moments their car burst into flames and all three of the girls were killed. An Indiana grand jury voted unanimously to indict Ford Motor Company on three counts of reckless homicide. Ford was accused of recklessly designing, manufacturing and marketing the Pinto’s unsafe fuel tank, in part because the corporation was aware of the design defects of the Pinto before production but did not rectify the problems.
- Death toll – Between 27 to 180 consumers (reports differ). However, Ford sold approximately 2.2 million Pintos. Even at the high end of the estimates, the death toll is no more than .01% of consumers.
- Outcome – NOT GUILTY
- Lesson Learned – Corporations can be charged with criminal homicide in U.S. courts
BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill – United States v. BP Exploration and Production, Inc. Court Docket Number: 2:12-CR-00292-SSVDEK.
In 2010, a spill from a broken oil well spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil, which ended up in the Gulf of Mexico and on the shorelines of several states. Eleven workers died during the explosion that triggered the spill. BP was charged and pled guilty to manslaughter, due to the fact that executives disregarded high-pressure readings right before the spill.
- Death toll – 11 BP employees
- Outcome – GUILTY
- Lesson Learned – Corporations, and their executives, can be held criminally responsible for corporate manslaughter.
The Peanut Butter Case – United States of America v. Parnell, Case No, 1:13-CR-12-WLS
From 2008-2009, an outbreak of salmonella infections in the U.S. was linked to contaminated peanut butter. Rodent droppings, dead insects, a leaking roof, and broken roasting equipment were found to be behind the contaminated peanut butter. The former CEO of Peanut Corporation of America was found guilty of “knowingly selling tainted peanut butter.” In addition to imprisonment for the CEO, PCA is facing an $11.2 million dollar fine. On September 21, 2015, Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison, the harshest penalty on record related to food-borne illness. Read more about this case here>.
- Death toll – 9 consumers killed, 20,000 sickened. The company manufactured about 2.5% of the nation’s peanut products and sickened or killed .006% of Americans.
- Outcome – GUILTY
- Lesson learned – knowingly selling a deadly product should result in a fine and jail time for corporate executives.
Tobacco products kill more people than alcohol, AIDS, car accidents, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combined. In the United States, smoking is responsible for more than 440,000 deaths every year, about one in five of all deaths. Forty-two million American adults smoke; about half of them will die as a result. As one state Supreme Court recently noted, cigarettes likely constitute “the most dangerous product lawfully sold” to consumers. Evans v. Lorillard Tobacco Co., 990 N.E.2d 997, 1019 (Mass 2013). The lethal consequences of smoking have been known to tobacco corporations for decades, yet they continue these activities, with full knowledge of the certainty of death to millions of consumers caused by the ordinary use of cigarettes.
- Death toll – 10 people die every minute from a tobacco-related disease. Left unchecked, tobacco use will kill 1 billion people this century.
- Outcome – Tobacco companies are still marketing and selling their deadly products.
- Lesson Learned -Tobacco corporations and their executives should be held criminally responsible for tobacco related deaths.
Corporations should be held responsible for the death and destruction caused by their products, especially when corporations knowingly advertise and sell deadly products, as is the case with Big Tobacco.
If you are interested in reading more about potential criminal liability for tobacco executives, read more on ASH’s website here>.
If you are interested in helping to fund the research that goes into the possibility of holding tobacco executives criminally liable, donate here>