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Criminalizing Big Tobacco: Legal Mobilization and the Politics of Responsibility for Health Risks in the United States


  • Funding for this study was provided by the National Science Foundation, Award 0451207. The authors thank Paul Quirk, Ken Kersch, Lynn Mather, Timothy Lytton, Anthony Sebok, the members of the Law, Societies, and Justice group at the University of Washington, and several anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier versions of this article. The authors dedicate this article to Daniel Lev, a model sociolegal scholar, mentor, and colleague who greatly inspired two of us. Dan died of lung cancer in 2006 after smoking all his adult life.

Michael McCann is Gordon Hirabayashi Professor for the Advancement of Citizenship at the University of Washington. He worked on this project while supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship. Postal address is Box 353530, Department of Political Science, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98115; William Haltom is Professor of Politics and Government at the University of Puget Sound. Shauna Fisher completed her PhD at the University of Washington in 2011 and is presently undertaking a Michael O. Sawyer Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Law and Politics at Syracuse University.


This article reinterprets the discursive terms and cultural meanings that redefined the legal campaign against Big Tobacco during recent decades. We underline the palpable shift from a conventional tort-based logic of products liability claims, which most analysts emphasize, to a logic incorporating key features identified with criminal law or “crimtorts.” The study builds on legal mobilization theory and combines narrative history of events with systematic analysis of media coverage across a twenty-year period to demonstrate how Big Tobacco was criminalized over two decades.