Jun. 18, 2001: Tobacco products – especially cigarettes – have all the redeeming qualities of a fence post.

I smoked a cigarette once when I was at the University of Georgia. I was trying to be cool. I got such a bad case of heartburn that I never smoked another one. So much for being cool.

According to the Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta, cigarette smoking is responsible for 90 percent of lung cancers among men and 79 percent among women. People who smoke two or more packs of cigarettes a day have lung cancer mortality rates 12 to 25 times greater than nonsmokers. Smoking is responsible for 30 percent of all cancer deaths, as well as a lot bad breath, stained teeth and smelly clothes.

As repugnant as it is, however, smoking isn’t against the law. As a matter of fact, it is perfectly legal. While we can limit where people smoke, we cannot deny their right to smoke.

That is why I question the recent jury decision in California that awarded $3 billion to Richard Boeken, a two-pack-a-day smoker. Mr. Boeken—a life-long smoker – has lung and brain cancer but says he wasn’t aware of the dangers of smoking until just a few years ago. Not aware of the dangers? Where has this guy been? On Mars? Maybe the smoke was so thick in his house he couldn’t see the warning labels that have been on cigarette packages since 1965. Maybe he was too busy sucking nicotine to pay attention to all of the media reports on the dangers of smoking. Maybe the American Cancer Society doesn’t have a branch office on Mars.

I have no sympathy for Philip Morris who got nailed by the jury. The company makes a dangerous product and deserves a good kick in the pocketbook. Besides, cigarette manufacturers have a history of being less than forthright about the hazards of smoking. But Philip Morris didn’t force Mr. Boeken to buy their product. He did of his own free will. And if the companies can be sued for making tobacco available for purchase, what about the tobacco farmers? It is a $150 million business in Georgia. Why don’t we sue them for growing the stuff in the first place?

The answer is that too many people – almost 50 million in the U.S. – still want to smoke and chew and dip. And as long as they do, the nation will continue to allow tobacco products into the marketplace. Government will continue to pay subsidies to tobacco farmers who ought to do something responsible for a change, like grow kumquats. Lawyers will continue to get rich suing deep-pocketed tobacco companies. Anti-smoking groups will continue to rail about the dangers of tobacco. But tobacco products are going to be with us until you and I get fed up and exert enough pressure on Congress to ban the stinky stuff once and for all. Until then, people will be free to exercise their legal right to go eyeball-to-eyeball with cancer. It is the American way.

But I have a big problem with not taking responsibility for our actions. That also seems to be the American way these days. A guy smokes two packs of cigarettes a day for forty years, gets cancer and then says it isn’t his fault. Philip Morris made him do it. Can’t we ever say, “I made a mistake?” I goofed? I’m wrong? My fault? Evidently not. It has become a part of our culture to point the finger at somebody else for our sins. We drive gas-guzzling SUV’s too fast and then blame the government for high gas prices. We drink too much, eat too much, fool around too much, and then wonder who is responsible for a decline in morality. We are afraid to tell our kids ‘no’ and then we chastise our education system for a lack of discipline. We cluck about all the inept politicians in Washington and less than half of us even bother to vote. There seems to be no end to our abilities to pass the buck for our shortcomings.

Mr. Boeken blames Philip Morris for giving him cancer. Maybe somebody should tell him to go look in a mirror. He might see the real culprit. Maybe we need to take an occasional peek ourselves.