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Health Groups Decry Tobacco Settlement

TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

Every major public health organization in California decried the proposed $206-billion national tobacco settlement Wednesday and urged Atty. Gen.-elect Bill Lockyer and other government officials to take whatever steps necessary to prevent the deal from taking effect.

The American Heart Assn. condemned the deal as “a sellout to the tobacco industry that neither recoups health care costs in California nor provides adequate protection for public health,” said Marc H. Burgat, director of public affairs for the organization’s western states’ affiliate, at a legislative hearing convened in Pasadena.

Representatives of the California affiliates of the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Assn. and the executive director of Americans for Non-Smokers Rights said the deal was flawed, particularly for California, which already has a number of strong anti-tobacco programs in effect.

But Lockyer, while expressing unhappiness that state officials are being forced to make a decision on the deal by noon Friday, acknowledged that turning down the settlement would be difficult.

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For him and for Gov.-elect Gray Davis, rejecting the $25 billion that California would get over the next 25 years under the settlement would be risky, “especially if you don’t know if you’d get more” if the state’s case went to trial, Lockyer said. The settlement amount is vastly more than anyone has ever won in any lawsuit in California or anywhere else.

In the meantime, the official who actually represents the state in the settlement talks, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, declined to send a representative to the hearing. Lungren and key members of his staff who were involved in the negotiations were briefing local officials such as Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and one of Davis’ lawyers at a meeting in Sacramento.

Sue Ellen Wooldrige and Tracey Buck-Walsh, the special assistant attorneys general who were Lungren’s representatives at the negotiations, said that under California law there would not have to be a public hearing to approve the settlement, though they didn’t rule out the possibility that there would be one.

They contend that the settlement is “very good” for California and that there are more public health benefits in the deal than in any of the deals obtained by the four states that settled earlier.

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After meeting with Lungren’s assistants for more than four hours, Yaroslavsky said he was still undecided about the best decision for the county, which has filed a suit separate from the state’s litigation.

“There are a lot of contingencies that protect the tobacco companies, including the fact that their payments will be reduced if cigarette sales go down,” he said. “Having said that, we have to make a decision based on weighing whether we stand to get any better a deal if we proceed with our lawsuit.” Los Angeles County would get about $3.3 billion as its portion of California’s share if the county opts into the settlement.

Lockyer, state Sen. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and Assembly members Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles) and Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) all said at the hearing that they were troubled by certain aspects of the settlement. And they all declared that the Friday deadline is totally unreasonable.

Lockyer said he had asked lawyers to research the issue of whether some kind of challenge to the fairness of the settlement could be lodged with Judge Ronald Prager, who is presiding over the California cases, and would have to approve the settlement. Lockyer said he had not gotten an answer yet.

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Schiff, who chaired the hearing, said he had invited tobacco company representatives to testify but they declined. John Lombardo, a Los Angeles attorney who represents Philip Morris, attended the hearing but declined to comment.

For the pact to go into effect, an undefined “critical mass” of states have to sign up. The determination on whether enough states have signed up will be made by executives of the nation’s four major tobacco companies at board meetings set to take place over the weekend. It is anticipated that if about 80% of the states, especially large states such as California and New York, which also participated in the negotiations, are on board, that industry chieftains will ratify the settlement.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 18 states, including the eight that participated in the talks, had signed up. Although several states were considered potential holdouts as recently as last week, no state has said definitively that it would reject the pact. Wisconsin, long considered a potential holdout, has come into the settling tent. (The industry earlier settled cases filed by Mississippi, Florida, Texas and Minnesota for $41 billion).

States that decide to join the settlement have to file papers with judges in their states seeking to end their suits by a consent decree. California’s massive suit against the industry is pending in San Diego County Superior Court, consolidated with four major cases filed against the industry, including ones filed by Los Angeles County, San Francisco County and Davis on behalf of all state residents.

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A bevy of speakers at the hearing raised a host of criticisms. For example, Stanton Glantz, a UC medical school professor and long-time industry critic, said the deal would compensate the state for only about one-third of its annual expenses stemming from tobacco-related health problems.

Among the other criticisms raised: California will get less per capita than states that settled previously; a provision of the deal will make it more difficult for local governments to file secondhand smoke suits in the future; the industry could continue to sponsor some high-profile sports events; the terms of the deal would make it difficult to prove that the industry had targeted cigarette advertising at minors; and if the federal government raises tobacco taxes--a goal announced by President Clinton on Monday--the industry would get an offset against its payments to the states.

Tom Fogel of the American Cancer Society said he was particularly troubled by the fact that the settlement did not call for any penalties to be imposed on the industry if youth smoking is not reduced. A bill that died in Congress this year contained such a provision.


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