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If Drug Dealers Can be Found Criminally Liable, Can Big Tobacco?

Last month, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the case of Burrage v. United States. The case focuses on a federal law that requires a mandatory sentence for a drug dealer if “death or serious injury” results from drugs they sold. During oral arguments, much of the court’s discussion focused on the question of what “results from” means.

Does the drug that the dealer sold need to be the primary cause of death? Is it sufficient if the drugs contributed to the victim’s death? This is a complex issue with some far-reaching ramifications and will likely lead to a very interesting opinion from the Supreme Court of the United States (read a transcript of the oral arguments from SCOTUS blog here).

The “results from” question is an important issue for tobacco control. When a smoker dies, their death can often be attributed to several causes, both genetic and environmental. The immediate cause is cancer, or heart disease, or emphysema. Despite the fact that it may seem clear that a smoker died due to the effects of tobacco, it may be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

Of course, there are clear legal distinctions between Burrage and tobacco related deaths; primarily that tobacco does not fall under the federal law in question because it is not an illegal drug. However, there is still some potential for precedent. Some jurisdictions have been prosecuting similar crimes, but charging them very differently.

Last week, in New Jersey, a drug dealer pled guilty to manslaughter: Ocean County, NJ Prosecutor.  In Minnesota, dealers have been charged and convicted of third degree murder: ABA Journal. Manslaughter and homicide statutes do not require that illegal drugs cause the death of the victim; therefore, death from tobacco use could potentially be included.

The inevitable question is then – Do you think that tobacco companies could be held criminally responsible for the tobacco-related deaths of their customers?

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