Cover image for Assuming the risk : the mavericks, the lawyers, and the whistle-blowers who beat big tobacco
Assuming the risk : the mavericks, the lawyers, and the whistle-blowers who beat big tobacco
Orey, Michael.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Boston : Little, Brown, [1999]

Physical Description:
385 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
KF228.H666 O74 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A washed-up actor-turned-paralegal steals a cache of internal tobacco company documents. An unreconstructed Southerner, who once burned a cross in a neighbor's yard, takes a poor black man's case against a cigarette maker to court, prays at his bedside, and weeps at his grave. A navy pilot who was nearly ordered to drop nuclear weapons on Prague returns to become a millionaire asbestos attorney. A rock-and-roll-singing, twenty-seven-year-old district attorney brings down one of the most powerful political figures in Mississippi and goes on to become the state's attorney general.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The painful death in 1987 of Nathan Horton, a poor black Mississippian, is the starting point for this novel-like recounting of the ultimate defeat of the tobacco industry. His heirs filed suit against the makers of Pall Mall cigarettes, citing their product as the cause of death. The author, a legal journalist, sketches vivid pictures of the broad cast of characters in this real-life drama, from Horton himself to the washed-up actor turned paralegal who stole internal tobacco company documents to the once cross-burning white lawyer who represented Horton's family. This is a story not only of a legal battle but also of the culture of the Deep South and the changing race relations there. The 1997 multibillion settlement between the tobacco industry and the state of Mississippi, which was the outgrowth of the Horton case, was triumph with ramifications yet to be realized. This is a timely and fascinating book, a classic example of truth being better than fiction. --Mary Whaley

Publisher's Weekly Review

As the Marlboro Man descends from the nation's billboards, Orey's account of the first successful litigation targeting tobacco companies is well timed. For a book documenting litigation, it's a joy to read largely because of its colorful cast of characters: a Nazi apothecarist, Sylvester Stallone (accepting a cool half million to light up his favorite brand of smokes in five movies), a witness who wears a fresh clove of garlic as a tie tack to demonstrate his feelings toward lawyers, the lawyers for big tobacco whose victory celebrations are conducted in the presence of a skeleton with a cigarette jammed between its bony fingers. Orey, who covered tobacco cases for the American Lawyer and is now an editor at the Wall Street Journal, follows attorney Don Barrett as he tries three cases against the tobacco industry, losing all of them and not earning a penny, but persevering to help pilot Mississippi's Medicaid recovery suitÄa landmark case in which the tobacco companies settled for $3.6 billion. Like all noteworthy villains, Orey's tobacco companies make their own fatal errors. Hiring washed-up paralegals to index their most secret documents at $9 an hour beggars the cloak-and-dagger antics that make this book such an enjoyable read, regardless of how many packs a day one smokes. U.K. and translation rights: Williams & Connolly. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This book offers a new history of the groundbreaking Mississippi lawsuit that resulted in the first significant legal victory against the tobacco industry. Orey's gripping and very readable account focuses on the individuals involved, particularly Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore and whistleblowers Merrell Williams and Jeffrey Wigand. Orey, an attorney and Wall Street Journal editor, goes into much greater detail on these individuals than on the legal nuances of the case. While the book correlates with what is known of the facts of the case, it is disturbingly slim on references. Nevertheless, it is worthy of a place on public and academic library shelves next to Peter Pringle's Cornered: Big Tobacco at the Bar of Justice (LJ 3/1/98), Richard Kluger's Ashes to Ashes (LJ 6/15/96), and Stanton A. Glantz & others' The Cigarette Papers (LJ 6/15/96).ÄEris Weaver, Marin Inst. for the Prevention of Alcohol & Other Problems, San Rafael, CA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One A Toe in Tobacco By Mississippi standards, colonization came late to Holmes County. While the French and Spanish were staking claims along the coast in the 1700s, the north-central part of the state was largely uninhabited. According to an account written by J. Daniel Edwards, a local Holmes County historian, various Indian tribes that had lived in the area had abandoned it by about 1720, leaving it essentially unpopulated for a hundred years. The land was still considered Indian territory, though, until the Treaty of Doaks Stand in 1820 and the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek ten years later brought the region under U.S. control. The best way to get a sense of Holmes County today is to enter it from the north, taking Route 49E out of Greenwood in neighboring LeFlore County. This takes you along the eastern flank of the Mississippi Delta, flat and cultivated as far as the eye can see, a carpet of shimmering green in the summer, bursting fluffy white, as though topped by warm-weather snow, when the cotton bolls open in the fall. Cotton is still king in this area-- gins and seed presses dot the landscape--but the cost of growing it, its need for vast quantities of herbicides and pesticides in particular, has made it less clearly the crop of choice. Soybeans, wheat, rice, and corn also grow in the rich Delta soil. For all their fecundity, these fields convey a sense of desolation. The region, whose desperate need for laborers to plant and weed and pick cotton made it reliant on slaves and then sharecroppers, now seems almost devoid of people. Occasionally a pickup truck cuts across the horizon or a crop-dusting plane buzzes low over the fields. Even at harvesttime, activity is isolated: giant machines make their mechanized march across the land, picking four rows of cotton at a time. But few prosper from the land's bounty: With a per capita income of $9,500, Holmes County is one of the poorest counties in Mississippi, which, with a statewide per capita income of about $17,000, is the poorest state in the nation. Route 12 heads east out of the town of Tchula (pronounced CHOO-luh), and the two-lane highway cuts across level land for about a mile. Then the road rears sharply up, and suddenly you have left the Delta and are in the rolling terrain that Mississippians call "the Hills." Pitching up and down now, the road progresses steadily to higher ground. There are still cotton fields here, but they intermix with stretches of uncultivated land, much of it woods. Entire groves of trees in many places are completely draped in kudzu, giving the appearance of some topiary project gone horribly awry. Giant human- and animal-like forms seem to be struggling to burst forth from the smothering green shroud. A joke in the South has it that if a cow stands too long in one spot, it will end up covered by the weed. Relentless in its growth, kudzu crawls across fields and into the gullies and ravines that crisscross the land. As Route 12 enters Lexington, it curves down past a sign made of wrought iron that reads IS JESUS CHRIST LORD OF LEXINGTON, the question mark either missing or never intended. From here it's a straight shot into the town square, where the redbrick facade and clock tower cupola of the courthouse loom up like a cutout from a folk art painting. Lexington, population 2,200, is the county seat; all over Mississippi, similar town squares with courthouses at their center serve as the civic heart of their county. In Oxford, home to William Faulkner, a historical marker on the courthouse quotes this passage from his Requiem for a Nun: But above all, the courthouse: the center, the focus, the hub; sitting looming in the center of the county's circumference like a single cloud in its ring of horizon, laying its vast shadow to the uttermost rim of the horizon; musing, brooding, symbolic and ponderable, tall as cloud, solid as rock, dominating all: protector of the weak, judicate and curb of the passions and lusts, repository and guardian of the aspirations and the hopes . . . Ellipsis and all, the plaque ends there, the maker perhaps out of bronze or out of breath. On the lawn outside the Lexington courthouse is something else that can be found in town squares throughout Mississippi: an obelisk-style monument to the Civil War. The product of a Confederate memorial movement active in the South from the 1870s until World War I, the monuments tend to express a certain view of the conflict. THE MEN WERE RIGHT WHO WORE THE GRAY AND RIGHT CAN NEVER DIE, declares the one in Lexington, dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1908. On the ground next to the obelisk is a polished granite stone laid in 1976, on the bicentennial of the American Revolution. The stone is partly overgrown with grass, and you have to stand on it if you want to read the testaments to the Civil War. Chartered in 1836, Lexington developed slowly prior to that war. But as the county seat, it became a magnet for banking and business. Several wagon and carriage manufacturers established operations in town, proximate as it was to forests of the choice hardwoods such as hickory, walnut, oak, and ironwood favored by that trade. Nearby springs gave rise to steam grist and lumber mills, and in 1859 local residents raised $500,000 for the construction of a cotton mill. As the local newspaper noted, that meant that "merchants may buy supplies of cotton fabric at home rather than from the unscrupulous Yankees." By the turn of the century, Lexington had emerged as the economic and political center of Holmes County. In 1908, Samuel Cohen, a Lithuanian immigrant, opened a dry goods store on the square, and he was joined by other Jewish merchants who had originally come to the region as peddlers. Cohen's Department Store serves customers to this day, run by Philip Cohen, Samuel's grandson. But when the younger Cohen steps out of his shop and surveys the town square today, he sees none of the vitality that drew his grandfather there. As has happened in small towns everywhere, customers have fled to the Wal-Marts and other national chains in the outlying strip malls. The square looks and feels tired now, even taking into account the languor induced by the often-steamy climate. The movie theater has long been shuttered, and the Ben Franklin five-and-dime finally gave up in the early 1990s. Amid empty storefronts, the shops that remain seem to be struggling to hang on. Almost every building could use a coat of paint. Nevertheless, the square is not devoid of activity. There's still some shopping that can be done, and the courthouse--which also houses the tax assessor's office and a meeting room for the county supervisors-- remains an unavoidable destination for many. A steady stream of traffic flows around the square, which serves as a junction for the main north- south and east-west routes in the county. Occasionally trucks rumble by, piled high with timber or hauling giant sections of prefabricated homes made at a plant just east of town. On certain Tuesdays, on the north steps of the courthouse, banks auction off property they have foreclosed on. And for a brief few weeks in 1988, Lexington and its courthouse became the arena of a legal struggle pitting a poor black man and his family against a giant American corporation. While Lexington quickly faded from public view, the battle that was launched there raged on in Mississippi for nearly ten years, and would reverberate around the nation before it came to its dramatic end. Copyright © 1999 Michael Orey. All rights reserved.