The state Senate on Thursday urged Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren to join other states in suing tobacco companies for payment of public health-care costs related to smoking.
The appeal came on the heels of news reports that the tobacco companies appear to be preparing to settle lawsuits filed by more than 20 states.
“If California is not at the bargaining table, we have the strong possibility of missing out on what could be millions of dollars,” said Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford).
On a 21-11 vote, the bare majority necessary, the Senate adopted a nonbinding resolution calling on Lungren to seek recovery of tobacco-related costs to the state’s Medi-Cal health care system for the poor.
Democrats and a single Republican, Sen. Bruce McPherson of Santa Cruz, voted for the measure by Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco). All the no votes were cast by Republicans.
A similar proposal was approved by the Senate last session. It died in the Assembly, which was then controlled by Republicans. Democrats now dominate the lower chamber.
Lungren, who is planning to run for governor, has steadfastly refused to join other states in suing the tobacco companies. He contends that a controversial 1987 state law shields tobacco companies from product liability claims.
But Senate leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), author of the statute, accused Lungren of raising a “smoke screen” to avoid suing a “major and powerful business in this country.”
Lockyer asserted that there are “‘other ways” and “alternative routes” for Lungren to sue if he believes the product liability law is a barrier.
Dave Puglia, a spokesman for Lungren, said the law, initially written on a restaurant napkin during the final, hectic nights of the 1987 session, “presents an insurmountable hurdle to success at trial.”
“The Legislature can change the statute,” Puglia said. If it was repealed, he said, “we’d have to take another serious look at the question.”
It is uncertain how much tobacco-related illnesses have cost California taxpayers, but Burton estimated the sum at “hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Last week, some news accounts indicated that negotiators for the tobacco industry and representatives of states that have sued seemed headed toward a “global” out-of-court settlement of the nearly two dozen lawsuits.
Sher, a law professor, told the Senate that California should move quickly to sue because, if a settlement is reached, the tobacco industry likely would then ask Congress to outlaw such suits in the future.
Sen. Raymond N. Haynes (R-Riverside), the only legislator to defend Lungren during floor debate, insisted that the Burton measure was politically motivated and designed to divert the attorney general from pursuing “murderers and thieves.”
Burton dismissed the criticism, saying that it was not the attorney general’s job to track down and prosecute criminals, but rather to file civil actions on behalf of taxpayers.
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