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The Real Poop

Does being a corporate lawyer sound just a little too ordinary? Not enough money? Not enough lives for you to play with? Then you should become a lawyer for a tobacco company. You will never be short of money—or lives to play with.

Tobacco companies exist to more or less peddle tobacco products to people who want them—or at least, who have been convinced by billions of dollars worth of advertising and marketing that they want them. Which is totally fine and good. Companies do that kind of thing all the time.

But rarely are companies selling a product so completely and obviously tied to death. There’s no point tiptoeing around the smoking chimney stack in the room. There are very few people alive today who don't know that sucking in tiny puffs of addictive smoke every day over the course of years isn't great for you, your mouth, throat, lungs and stomach. (The ones that don’t know that aren’t alive today, precisely for that reason.) Every year, 500,000 Americans die, and large numbers—though it's impossible to determine how many exactly—first started smoking because of advertisements and marketing that tobacco companies, your employers, initiated.

Tobacco lawyers all know this. They’re smart people. They’ve got a hefty dose of cunning street smarts and many, many years of education (we’ll get to that). But for the most part, tobacco lawyers don’t really care how many people die. They care about themselves and the obscene mountains of money they make. Or they care about the corporation’s rights to sell their product freely and the consumer’s right to do something stupid if they want to. Social workers they certainly are not.

Those are basically the two kinds of people who can rationalize doing tobacco litigation for a living. When they get down to it, they’re both pretty awful, and we’ll explain why. The first type of lawyer defends tobacco companies because he just wants the big paycheck. For the past forty years plus, the Big Tobacco companies have been some insanely high-paying clients, so these are some really big paychecks. Some top guys earn more than ten million dollars a year defending tobacco companies. They don’t give a rat’s behind who gets hurt in the process. (“People are dying? Who cares? I just added a sweet new Lamborghini to my collection.”)

The other type of lawyer thinks everyone should have the right to do whatever stupid thing they want to do, even if it includes slowly killing themselves. Companies should sell their products the way they want, people should be able to buy cigarettes and smoke them whenever they gosh darn well please. It’s really similar to the argument that individuals should be free to choose whether they wear a helmet or a seatbelt. These guys are diehard small government types, skeptical of laws and ordinances designed to tell people what and how and where they should do things. They might even come out of the American Civil Liberties Union, which by the way, has been known to take huge amounts of money from the Big Tobacco companies. And in the process of defending the American people against big government, why not make a buck or two (billion) off that stupidity?

Bottom line, though. What both types of tobacco lawyers have in common is the belief that the legal system is nothing more than a game to be manipulated on behalf of whatever client is willing to shell out the big bucks, or in service of some greater, principled stand against government incursion. Nothing you do is illegal, per se. In fact, it’s all very, very legal. (Maybe that’s the scariest part of all.)

Tobacco litigators spend their days parsing Surgeon General warnings, debating the difference between words like “considerable” and “reasonable,” and arguing over technicalities like class action versus individually brought lawsuits. Generally speaking, they twist facts into the world’s most elaborate fact pretzel. And the pretzel is only getting twistier. In 2009, the Obama administration passed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Act, a major act of legislation that effectively gives the FDA the same power over all forms of tobacco that it's had over, ahem, food and drugs for the past forty years. Now, not only are the gloves off, but both camps are in head-to-toe body armor and carrying a bazooka, a bayonet, and maybe a spear or two. Things are tense and emotions are running high.

In the midst of all this, there are some definite ethical questions that you need to ask yourself. Like, do you care that you work for a company that manufactures a product supposedly responsible for half a million American deaths per year? Do you care that you are basically defending the rights of individuals to slowly kill themselves? Maybe that sounds admirable to you. But remember that even though you feel good, or okay, about your decision now, will you feel the same about your choice when you’re cross-examining a woman whose husband died after years and years of trying to quit smoking, which he started after seeing a couple Marlboro Man ads when he was sixteen? When you’re working 18-hour days to prevent the families of eight thousand deceased smokers from getting what amounts to a pittance each from the super, crazy rich tobacco companies?

At the end of the day, you have to view the law as a game that you want to play and win, no matter who loses or how much they lose. You can’t think about the each smoker’s individual life, except to think, “Gee, that was a really stupid decision he made to start smoking, and he should have known better.” This is a job not just for the people who are well suited for law (persuasive and eloquent writers and orators with a passion for nitty-gritty details), but specifically and only for people who can tolerate some significant ambiguities and ethical grey areas. Either because they genuinely believe in what they’re doing, or because they appreciate that fat old paycheck all the more. It’s a salary that some would kill for…