Closing Arguments on Big Tobacco, Boston Legal Style

Reading time: 6 – 9 minutes

The ABC television drama Boston Legal is one of my favorite programs. The show features quick, intelligent dialogue and great performances. Producer David E. Kelly has used Boston Legal as a platform to speak out on a number of issues over the last four seasons. Each installment walks a fine line between entertainment and political/social issues such as the Iraq War, global warming and Hurricane Katrina. Tuesday night’s season premier titled “Smoke Signals” was no exception. In this episode, Kelly tackles big tobacco.

Attorney Alan Shore represents a client who is suing a large tobacco company; her father smoked cigarettes for over 50 years and died of lung cancer. Testifying before the jury, the tobacco company CEO maintained that “we also some good along the way”, asking, “how many industries actually spend money to discourage people from buying their products?” He claimed that “spending billions of dollars on anti-smoking campaigns and youth prevention efforts” is an “unprecedented display of corporate conscience.” In their closing arguments, the defense maintained that there wasn’t conclusive evidence that the tobacco company caused the death of the plaintiff.

Shore delivered powerful closing arguments in the case as only the incomparable James Spader could present. Throughout his closing, he cited research findings and statistics that seemed “made for TV” but are, in fact, very real. In quintessential Highlight HEALTH fashion, I have referenced the studies throughout his closing arguments below. There will only be 12 episodes in this, the fifth and final season of Boston Legal. Enjoy it while you can.

Closing arguments

Michael Rhodes smoked cigarettes for 50 years, got lung cancer and died; we all know what happened here. We also all know this death. Everybody in this room knows somebody who has fought this same battle and dies … agonizing, brutal, excruciating …

But … emotion has no play here. Michael Rhodes was eleven years old when he started smoking, it was 1948. At that time, there was no known risk, and even if there were, at eleven he certainly lacked the capacity to assume it. And after that, he was addicted. They manufacture them to be addictive.

In just the last few years, they’ve increased the amount of nicotine in the average cigarette by 11.6% to make them even more addictive [1]. Recently, we learned that tobacco companies have been adding an ammonia-based compound to cigarettes for years to increase absorption of nicotine [2]. It’s basically the same principle used in crack cocaine.

And let’s look at the obscene strategy they’ve employed here. Smoking may cause cancer, but it didn’t cause this particular cancer. It wasn’t our cigarettes, or it was genetic, or asbestos or a paper mill. Never do they take responsibility ever. And God forbid, if you sue them, they’ll bury you and your lawyer. They might even depose your doctor to death, for good measure. All their insidious methods and cunning corporate tactics aren’t just history, it’s what they continue to do now, today. Because the tobacco industry is like a nest of cockroaches, they will always find a way to survive.

They still go after kids with one strategy after another. They put up brightly colored ads at kid’s eye level in convenience stores. They hire gorgeous twenty-somethings to frequent popular venues and seduce young adults into attending lavish corporate-sponsored parties. Cockroaches will always find a way.

They can’t advertise on TV but they’ve hired PR agencies to hook them up with the film industry. And it’s worked. Researchers estimate that smoking in movies delivers nearly 400,000 adolescent smokers every year [3]. Every time you try to kill the cockroach, it finds another way. It has to, because when you make a product that kills off your consumers, you have to find a way to recruit new customers.

They’ve now got a new feminized version of the macho Camel brand using slogans like “lite” and “luscious” with hot pink packaging. Virginia Slims advertised their “thin cigarette”. Allure Magazine did a whole spread on the cigarette diet [4]. They use social and psychological profiling [5], targeting potential smokers by gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, socioeconomic groups … cockroaches don’t discriminate.

Their CEO comes into this courtroom gloating over their anti-smoking campaign, which is designed to get kids to smoke. In 2003, they spent more than 15 billion on advertising and promotion [6]. That’s a 225% increase from 1998, and they have the audacity to declare they’re trying to discourage smoking. This is not how corporations with a conscience behave.

How in God’s name are cigarettes even legal, can anybody tell me that? They are a deadly concoction of carcinogens that damage every single organ in your body. Why do we not ban them? Because it’s a free country, because freedom of choice is an American ideal worth somebody dying every six seconds? How can any company, especially one with such a conscience no less, knowingly manufacture a product that poisons its users? … and make that product look cool and hip and sexy and fun, so they can get children. How can any attorney defend a company that would do such a thing and how could any society tolerate it, but we do.

There is no conscience at big tobacco. There is no conscience in Washington, which has been bought and paid for by this industry. Conscience has to come from you, the jury. If real regulation is to happen, it has to come from you. People are smoking day after day after day and dying and dying and dying and the tobacco companies keep getting richer and richer. Last year alone, they made 12 billion dollars in profits [7]. How can that be?

How can that be?


  1. Connolly et al. Trends in nicotine yield in smoke and its relationship with design characteristics among popular US cigarette brands, 1997-2005. Tob Control. 2007 Oct;16(5):e5.
    View abstract
  2. How an Unregulated Industry Experiments on America’s Kids and Consumers. American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Heart Association, American Lung Association and Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. 2008 Feb 20.
  3. Sargent, J. AAP Handout, October 2006. News release, American Academy of Pediatrics.
  4. Morris, L. “The Cigarette Diet.” Allure Magazine. 2000 Mar.
  5. Ling and Glantz. Using tobacco-industry marketing research to design more effective tobacco-control campaigns. JAMA. 2002 Jun 12;287(22):2983-9.
    View abstract
  6. Federal Trade Commission Cigarette Report For 2004 and 2005. United States Federal Trade Commission. 2007
  7. Fortune Global 500 2007: Altria Group.
About the Author

Walter Jessen, Ph.D. is a Data Scientist, Digital Biologist, and Knowledge Engineer. His primary focus is to build and support expert systems, including AI (artificial intelligence) and user-generated platforms, and to identify and develop methods to capture, organize, integrate, and make accessible company knowledge. His research interests include disease biology modeling and biomarker identification. He is also a Principal at Highlight Health Media, which publishes Highlight HEALTH, and lead writer at Highlight HEALTH.