“Are you awake now? Do you hear what the jury is saying? You have to stop,” Cynthia Robinson wants to tell the tobacco industry. The Florida widow recently won a $23.6 billion lawsuit against tobacco company R.J. Reynolds, one of the largest recent judgments on the industry, and in an interview with TIME, she says she hopes they listen to the jury’s message.
Robinson’s husband Michael Johnson died in 1996 at age of 36 from lung cancer, and in her lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds, she and her attorneys argued that the company was aware that cigarettes were addictive and caused lung cancer, but was negligent in telling smokers like Johnson about those risks.
Johnson got hooked on cigarettes when he was just 13-years-old, and eventually smoked up to three packs a day, often lighting his next cigarette with the burning end of the one he just finished. “He was a quiet person. He read the Bible every day, he took the kids swimming, he mowed the yards of all the elderly neighbors,” Robinson says. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1995 and lived for almost a year in constant pain. “The pain [from the cancer] was always there. When you’re on oxygen and you have to step outside for a cigarette, you can’t stop. You’re addicted.”
Johnson tried multiple times to stop smoking with no success. During one of her husband’s hospital visits, Robinson knew something was wrong when he began sweating and one of his eyes started to droop. The doctor said he would live for only a couple of months, but he survived for 10 more months. “He suffocated and died for so long, it was awful,” says Robinson, recalling how hard it was for her husband to breathe in the months before his death.