Tobacco Desperate for a Deal
By C. Everett Koop and David Kessler
Friday, November 20, 1998; Page A29
Big Tobacco once again has met with several state attorneys general behind
closed doors. The public, especially public health experts, once again was
specifically excluded from complicated negotiations. The public once again
has been presented with the details of a proposed tobacco "settlement."
And we are expected to believe that the tobacco industry is not once again
up to its old tricks?
After failing to buy special protections from Congress, Big Tobacco is
back to courting the attorneys general. Believing that anyone will sell
his virtue if the price is right, the highly profitable tobacco industry
is offering several states billions of dollars to gain protection and privileges
that no honest business would be granted. Big tobacco is desperate for a
deal, but why?
The tobacco industry wants to limit the public's knowledge of its chicanery.
Each lawsuit that actually goes to trial means that more secret documents
become public, shedding more light on what this greedy, lying industry does
to the nation's health. In addition, the industry knows that when increasingly
incriminating information becomes part of the public domain, other states'
chances of getting more money become better. Any attorneys general who decide
to reject the settlement and push on with their cases in court are likely
to not only recoup more of their states' money but also make more of big
tobacco's misdeeds public.
We wonder why no one stops to think about why Big Tobacco has so much
money. For decades the industry has bought special privileges and protections
that have allowed it to charge dearly for a cheap product. Profits are huge
because costs are transferred to the public. Other companies have to pay
for damages from defective products, even when defects were not intended,
but Big Tobacco has the taxpayer paying. You pay more than $2 for every
$1 Big Tobacco makes.
The desire of all negotiating parties for complete secrecy is a clear
sign that the public will suffer substantial losses in the terms, just as
it would have under the June 20, 1997, terms. Imagine the public and media
outrage if Congress suddenly decided that all legislative hearings were
now to be conducted in secret. The industry wants to surprise the public
with only one day of headlines so that a complete, thoughtful, and sound
review is not feasible. Apparently, the negotiating parties are going to
ignore state Administrative Procedures Acts requiring public review and
comment of usually at least 30 to 60 days before adoption of major policies.
The blinding amount of money offered, even though it represents not even
half of what is needed for just compensation, is supposed to hide this obligation.
The parties involved made a deal without public review of compromises
that the attorneys general as elected officials made for the citizens of
their state. And those attorneys general who have not already signed on
have only a matter of days to make this decision, a deadline imposed by
the tobacco industry because it knows that if there is proper public inspection
and debate on the settlement the public will be outraged.
And what is the industry proposing? Cents on the dollar, compared with
states that settled their cases individually; no provision for federal regulation
of an addictive drug; stunningly weak restrictions on advertising; increased
roadblocks to the federal government to increase cigarette taxes; improper
immunity for an industry that still has not admitted its misdeeds.
Big Tobacco should not be protected from suits by aggrieved individual
citizens, groups and organizations. Full disclosure must continue. Liability
should not be capped. Community laws should not be preempted by either states
or federal law, nor co-opted by an illegitimate, closed-door agreement between
attorneys general and Big Tobacco.
Some have called this a "milestone" in the war against tobacco,
implying that Congress will take up the issue again. But this agreement
would in fact mark one of the last miles in this long war. The settlement
sends a signal to Congress that the states accept the industry's group settlement
as acceptable punishment, thereby stunting further federal legislation.
And the more states accept the settlement, the stronger that destructive
signal will be.
Any attorney general who buys into the industry's lies is changing the
health of Americans for the worse. This settlement might be quick, but it
is no fix.
C. Everett Koop was surgeon general of the United States from 1981 to
1989. David Kessler was commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration
from 1990 to 1997.
Source: 1998 The Washington Post Company