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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 1st February 2012

There’s something Dickensian about the USA. As soon as I started to write that I realised that there is a great deal that is Dickensian about the USA, at least when viewed from the other side of the Atlantic.

There is a parallel between Jo, the crossing sweeper in Bleak House, clearing away the dirt so as it doesn’t cause problems for decent people, and the scenes we see of vagrants collecting materials for recycling in the hope of making a few dollars, their purloined shopping trolleys rattling with tin cans and glass bottles.

There’s the huge, unwieldy and almost unintelligible bureaucracy that is more than a match for the Circumlocution Office in ‘Little Dorrit’. And there is even the punishment of transportation for trivial offences that occurs in ‘Great Expectations’ if the recent case of Leigh Van Bryan and Emily Bunting is anything to go by. This link is to an MSNBC retelling of the story based on UK press reports but I’ve chosen it because it includes comments from the US authorities that are truly Dickensian in their unintelligibility.

But the Dickensian feature I had in mind as I drafted that opening sentence was the similarity between the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in ‘Bleak House’ and the long-drawn out process of reaching a final decision on any legal matter in the USA.

I wrote on the 8th November about the tobacco companies’ attempts to block more graphic warnings on cigarette packs. The ruling of a district judge that nothing could be done until the matter was fully concluded in the courts was seen as putting an indeterminate stop of the government’s plans.

Now, this Washington Post story says that the US Chamber of Commerce has weighed in on the side of the tobacco companies. The chamber’s line appears to be that forcing companies to, in effect, criticise their own products in promotional material is an infringement of the 1st Amendment right to free speech.

That ties in with the case the tobacco companies are putting forward but it seems to be looking at the issue from a wider perspective. I haven’t been able to find the actual ‘friend of the court brief’ online but I’m inclined to suspect that the Chamber of Commerce’s action is driven more by the alcohol industry than the cigarette companies. It is generally thought that alcohol will be next in line for greater government control over its promotion and marketing so anything that delays a resolution of constitutional issues surrounding warnings on tobacco products, probably, delays action against alcohol.

If the Chamber of Commerce is seeking to get the wider implications of the proposed on pack warnings considered, that will, almost certainly, further delay any decision in the case. The Washington Post story talks about it taking ‘years’ to get a final decision.

In 'Bleak House', many lives were ruined because the guardians of the legal system saw no reason to hurry their deliberations and felt the niceties of the law were of more importance that human wellbeing. Can you see the similarity?