FEDERAL SUIT: Could Be Announced as Early as Today
The Department of Justice is set to file a "mammoth civil lawsuit" against the tobacco industry as early as today, sources close to the matter told the Washington Post. The suit is expected to claim that cigarette smoking costs the federal government $25 billion per year in health claims paid to veterans, federal employees and Medicare beneficiaries. Moreover, the suit will insist the tobacco industry is liable for those costs in that it has engaged in consumer fraud and racketeering through its collusion in concealing the effects of smoking. "The American taxpayer has been forced to spend billions of dollars due to smoking-related illnesses, and the Justice Department is working on a way to get them their money back," said one government official (Vise/Adams, 9/22). With respect to damages sought, "the suit will be the largest ever brought by the department," the Los Angeles Times reports. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids' Matthew Myers called it "the most serious threat the tobacco industry has faced to date. In one case, the tobacco industry has more at risk than in all the cases brought by the state" (Rubin/Weinstein/Levin, 9/22). "The federal government's claims dwarf the claims of the individual states and the private class actions," he added. But he also said, "The true reality is this will be a difficult case. The charges are serious. And the claims have substantial merit. But no one knows how this lawsuit's going to come out. For the tobacco industry, this is Russian roulette. If they lose, they lose big" (Post, 9/22).
An industry lawyer contacted by the New York Times said he was unaware of "an imminent legal action by the government" (Stout, 9/22). But industry representatives were quick to jump on the government's motives, as well as the merits of the case. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Executive Vice President Tommy Payne said, "We are going to vigorously defend the lawsuit. We are not going to settle this lawsuit. And we anticipate that when this case is judged on the merits and not on the press release, the law is going to find that the Justice Department doesn't have a valid case against the tobacco industry." Gregory Little, associate general counsel for Philip Morris USA, added that as Congress failed in its attempt to tax smoking, "they are trying to use the court system to essentially impose a tax" (Post, 9/22). Philip Morris spokesperson Mike York added, "From a strictly legal standpoint, the best thing you can objectively say about this lawsuit is that it is utterly political. Future historians will judge this as a classic case of the Clinton administration bullying good professional people in the Justice Department to do something that they don't think has a valid basis in fact or law." But Myers said, "The tobacco industry will claim this case has no merit. The tobacco industry claimed that the state cases were utterly political and had no merit until they paid $246 billion to settle them" (Los Angeles Times, 9/22).
Tobacco Attacks Go Global
The Christian Science Monitor reports that European countries, inspired by American success against Big Tobacco, "are launching groundbreaking litigation against tobacco companies, claiming damages for the harm that they say cigarettes did to their health." Both parties in the European cases agree that some early success could "trigger a snowball effect." Francis Caballero, the first lawyer to bring such a suit in France, said, "If I win, the tobacco companies will be in a horrible tunnel." Health insurance companies and public health boards are poised to follow suit if plaintiffs begin to win. "Europe is by and large 10 to 15 years behind America, but it is taking exactly the same route," said Friedrich Wiebel, head of the German Medical Action Group. Erkka Aurejarvi, a Finnish lawyer who has been fighting American tobacco companies, said, "The defendants are the same, their lies are the same, the proceedings are alike" (Ford, 9/22).
Kansas City Star columnist Jerry Heaster writes that recent cases filed against American tobacco companies by South American countries "underscores how America's growing contempt for the spirit of tort law threatens global destabilization of the rule of law." He writes that their cases are "even more contemptuous of legal rationality than comparable U.S. efforts" in that many profit off tobacco themselves by shipping it to the rest of the world. He concludes that if "this greed-inspired corruption of the legal system is allowed to run its logical course, America in the mid-21st century may be as anarchical as Russia today" (9/22).