The forces arrayed against the industry threaten bankruptcy. That may lead to major changes.
Litigation against tobacco companies has reached the point where it could eventually force fundamental restructuring of one of the oldest and most profitable industries in America.
Taken together, recent judgments against tobacco firms indicate that their potential legal opponents are more numerous than previously thought - and that those opponents have a better shot at victory than they did only a few years ago.
For tobacco companies, this raises the specter of bankruptcy via liability costs. It may put them under increasing pressure to seek congressional regulation to ensure future financial viability.
If nothing else, some antitobacco activists say they finally see progress toward their own vision of 22nd-century tobacco: A stripped-down industry that focuses on serving existing customers, while making no overt effort to win new ones.
"My guess is that in the future tobacco firms will be run by different executives largely for the financial benefit of their generations of victims," says Richard Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University in Boston and head of the Tobacco Products Liability Project.
Tobacco's new legal peril has developed quickly. From the beginning of the modern era of tobacco litigation in 1954 until 1996, the industry was never forced to pay anything to an individual litigant. As recently as two years ago, the industry's mammoth settlement with state attorneys general held out the promise of protection against many prospective lawsuits.
What caused the change? In a word, paper. Millions of pages of internal industry documents unearthed by state lawsuits have provided juries an unprecedented glimpse into the mind of Big Tobacco.