The federal government seems willing to use any tool it takes, even an illegitimate one, to squash tobacco companies. While many may applaud the fact, they shouldn't. Those who have something to lose include all citizens.
What is going on right now is a $280 billion suit that could bankrupt the tobacco industry — or at least major segments of it — if the Justice Department is successful. The tool of choice is the Racketeers Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act, a loosely framed, gotcha piece of legislation adopted in 1970 to ease the way of cops and prosecutors in putting mobsters behind bars.
For law enforcement officials, the law has been a joy. For gangsters, it has been something to dread.
Should tobacco companies now have to dread it, too? No one can argue that the duplicitous behavior of some tobacco executives was anything but awful.
Even the tobacco companies don't argue their past virtue anymore, although their lawyers are given to euphemisms — "mistakes" is a word they embrace— when discussing the topic.
But the reprehensibility of Big Tobacco does not entitle the government to use a bad law intended for something else entirely to wreck the industry.
There are other ways — legitimate ways — in which tobacco can be closely regulated or even outlawed, if that is what our democracy chooses. When the government abuses its powers in an instance like this and gets away with it, every institution, every person is more at risk; legal safeguards have been diminished for everyone. The end, in short, does not justify the means.