SETTLEMENT: Health Groups Unite Against Immunity
"The public health community broke an internal impasse [yesterday] and sent its clearest signal yet that the tobacco industry should make much deeper concessions than it has accepted so far and that there is deep skepticism about granting tobacco companies any legal protection from future lawsuits," the Los Angeles Times reports (Rubin, 2/18). The nation's major public health groups and two noted public health leaders -- former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and former FDA Commissioner David Kessler -- "coalesced Tuesday against legislation that would protect cigarette makers from certain lawsuits," USA Today reports (Lee, 2/18). "[P]atching up a rift," twenty health groups -- including the American Lung Association, the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Association and the National Center for Tobacco Free Kids -- united to issue a "hard-line" letter against industry liability to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) at a Capitol Hill news conference, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports. "We oppose granting the tobacco industry immunity against liability for past, present or future misdeeds. Congress should focus its efforts on public health, not on the concessions the tobacco industry seeks," the letter said.
A Clear Signal
The Times-Dispatch reports that with this "carefully worded statement, the health groups provide like-minded politicians with political ammunition and may make it harder for the tobacco industry to achieve" protection from punitive damages under the $368.5 billion global settlement. However, tobacco industry spokesperson Steve Duchesne "defended the limits on legal liability included in the settlement as 'essential in any comprehensive tobacco legislation.'" If the tobacco industry does not receive protections, legislators "run the risk of running these companies into financial ruin," he said. "If that were to happen, how could the companies fulfill their obligations that they have agreed to?," Duchesne asked (Hardin, 2/18). "[W]ithout protection against lawsuits ... the companies would never voluntarily agree to restrict their advertising," said tobacco industry lawyer Meyer Koplow. "To do so outside a comprehensive settlement ... would be a violation of antitrust laws," Koplow "suggested" (Rosenbaum, New York Times, 2/18).
Writing in a Journal of the American Medical Association editorial, Koop, Kessler and JAMA editor Dr. George Lundberg state: "The extent that the tobacco industry has gone to secure special privilege and protect itself, individually and collectively, from liability from past and future health effects from tobacco use has raised a red flag in the public health community. With such a glaring difference between what is right and wrong for the public, Congress should have little difficulty in choosing a course that contains no deals and no trades. We support tobacco legislation by Congress, but we are opposed to granting any concessions to the tobacco industry." The authors outline "[m]ajor issues that each physician should know well, teach and advocate." These include "[t]he protection of [FDA] authority to regulate all areas of nicotine and other constituents and ingredients in tobacco"; "[t]he funding of sound programs ... to help nicotine-dependent individuals quit, be they adults or minors"; "[t]he refinement and expansion of the regulation of environmental tobacco smoke" and "[t]he prevention of federal law from overriding stronger and/or more diverse state and community regulations" (2/18 issue). Yesterday's announcement "largely end[ed] a painful internal split within the public health community," the Los Angeles Times reports. The public health groups' statement "was welcomed by members of Congress," including Senate Commerce Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ), "who had specifically called on the public health community to coalesce" (2/18).