Personal Responsibility

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

Personal Responsibility is the concept that tobacco and food lobbyists use to deflect criticism by blaming individuals for their fate and to take attention off the billions of dollars they spend on marketing harmful products each year.[1]

The idea that use of a product is solely an individual's responsibility is more than just an attempt to take heat off manufacturers for selling harmful products, however. It also figures into successful defense of liability lawsuits.

Tobacco industry promotion of "personal responsibility"

The tobacco industry has promoted the belief that smoking is a personal choice through PR activities like Philip Morris' $60 million, 1991-1992 "Bill of Rights" tour, in which they recruited school and children's organizations to act as host committees for a touring copy of the document. PM also sponsored a "Spirit of Liberty" poster contest for children. [2][3]

Indeed, the industry worked with public relations professionals to foster the public notion of "personal responsibility" regarding smoking. A 1987 paper outlining public relations objectives in the era after the case of Rose Defrancesco Cipollone listed as an objective to "sustain/strengthen existing positive attitudes in target audiences: personal responsibility; free and informed choice." [4]

There was, in fact, a crossover in promoting personal responsibility from the tobacco industry to the alcohol industry when Philip Morris owned Miller Beer. An August, 1997 Philip Morris report titled "Environmental Assessment - domestic Miller Beer" identifies alcohol as the "likely next target" for liability cases and identifies "Tobacco Proactive Efforts that could provide assistance to Miller." On the list was health warnings and "Promote personal responsibility."[5]

When regulation is proposed, industry will point to an "erosion of individual rights" and claim that regulation threatens the "American way of life" as a way to ignite opposition and control the debate. Often reference is made to the era of alcohol Prohibition in America, as occurred in R.J. Reynolds' Project Breakthrough, a multi-year national advertising campaign that sought to link smoking restrictions to Prohibition in the public mind. Buzzwords that corporations use to invoke the notion of personal responsibility and build support for their positions include "legislating behavior," "political correctness," denying free speech, "government nannyism," the loss of common sense, threats to privacy, "over-litigating" and the demise of personal responsibility."[6]

Notion of "personal responsibility" is central to liability defense

Widespread belief that smoking is a personal choice rather than an addiction or a medical diagnosis is central to the tobacco industry's ability to successfully defend itself in liability suits.

A 1994 report to the Philip Morris (PM) Board discusses the onslaught of public health actions to regulate tobacco that occurred in the U.S. under President Bill Clinton's administration. It also discusses a 1994 television news show, an ABC News' Day One segment, that claimed that Philip Morris spiked cigarettes with nicotine to keep smokers addicted. A portion of the document near the end discusses the tobacco industry's inside view of the particular threat that accrues when smoking is focused upon as an addiction rather than a "choice."

In 1994, David Kessler (then the Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, asserted that nicotine was an addictive drug intended to affect the structure and function of the body. Based on this, he asserted that cigarettes should be regulated by the FDA. This report conveys why PM executives considered references to smoking's addictiveness to be a major legal threat. Philip Morris attorney Murray H. Bring wrote that

...The most serious concern that I have is that the adverse media attention...being leveled at the industry may ultimately impact on jurors' attitudes about our defense in product liability cases ... But even if jurors do not believe that we "spike" our products, they could nevertheless adopt a more skeptical attitude in the future toward our principal defense --personal liability ... If he [Kessler] were to declare that nicotine in cigarettes is addictive and must be regulated, that action could affect the way in which jurors approach the issues of addiction and choice.[7]

Related SourceWatch articles

External resources


  1. Michele Simon, Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back (Nation Books, 2006) pg 328
  2. Advocacy Institute Bill of Rights Tour Update Newsletter. February 22, 1991. Bates No. 980120699/0703
  3. T. Barson, Salt Lake City County Health Department Philip Morris Bill of Rights Tour, Memo. March 7, 1991. 1 page. Bates No. 2025417733
  4. Tobacco Liability Cases Strategic Recommendations for Public Relations September, 1987. 20 pp. Bates No. 92347038/7057
  5. Philip Morris Environmental Assessment - domestic Miller Beer August, 1997. Bates No. 2078834810
  6. Philip Morris, Young and Rubicam N331 Speech, presentation. October, 29, 1996. Bates No. 2070392753/2765
  7. Murray Bring, Philip Morris Privileged and Confidential Presentation to the Board: March 30, 1994 Report. March 30, 1994. 27 pp. Bates No. 2022813447/3473