STATE OF THE UNION II: Justice Dept. To Sue Big Tobacco
In a surprise move that "stunned lawmakers," President Clinton announced during his State of the Union address that the Justice Department will sue cigarette makers to recover federal dollars spent treating sick smokers, and use the winnings to shore up Medicare, the Charlotte Observer reports (Leonnig, 1/20). Clinton said that "our children are targets of a massive media campaign to hook them on cigarettes" and called on Congress "to reaffirm the FDA's authority to protect children from tobacco" (Zitner, Boston Globe, 1/20). "You know, the states have been right about this. Taxpayers shouldn't pay for the cost of lung cancer, emphysema and other smoking-related illnesses -- the tobacco companies should," said Clinton (Sobieraj, AP/Owensboro Messenger- Inquirer, 1/20). Departing from his prepared speech, Clinton said, "Smoking has cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars under Medicare and other programs. ... The Justice Department is preparing a litigation plan to take the tobacco companies to court and, with the funds we recover, to strengthen Medicare" (Koch, USA Today, 1/20).
In a fact sheet on the new suit, the Justice Department cited the Medical Care Recovery Act and the Medicare Secondary Payer Act as two laws that could allow the government to recover money spent for smoking-related illnesses. A task force from the Justice Department's civil division will "decide on the timing and the best legal arguments for the suit" (AP/FoxNews, 1/20). The St. Petersburg Times reports that by prosecuting the case under existing law, Clinton's suit would sidestep Congress, "where the tobacco industry has lots of friends" (Adair, 1/20). But tobacco industry spokesperson Scott Williams "said the federal government will have a more difficult time arguing its case than the states did." Williams said federal officials must prove the government was ignorant of the health risks associated with smoking, which will be difficult since "the Office of the Surgeon General has been filing reports for decades on the dangers of smoking" (AP/FoxNews, 1/20). The New York Times reports that the federal case will rely on "novel legal theories" developed in the various state suits that have yet to be tested in court (Meier, 1/20).
War On Two Fronts
AP/Fox News reports that Clinton's renewed campaign against the tobacco industry "will not put to rest his fight for a share of the $246 billion states have won already from cigarette makers." But earlier yesterday, Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) introduced a bill that would block the federal government from taking a bite out of state tobacco settlements. "We still believe we are entitled to a portion of the state settlement under the law. ... That is separate and apart from this suit," an administration official said. (1/20). But Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore (D) hopes the Department of Justice suit will reduce Clinton's interest in the states' tobacco gold mine (USA Today, 1/20).
Clinton's announcement left lawmakers from tobacco states reeling as pundits scrambled to respond. "I was unhappy to hear that he is going to use the Justice Department to bring tobacco companies another blow," said Rep. Ron Lewis (R-KY). Fellow Kentucky Representative Ken Lucas (R) added, "What's bad for the tobacco companies is bad for the farmer, so I have some heartburn about that." The AP/Owensboro Messenger- Inquirer reports that Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY), Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) also expressed concerns about Clinton's plan (1/20). Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) said, "Nobody prepared us for that. It was a one-liner." Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) called it "a bad idea" -- a sentiment echoed by Reps. Eva Clayton (D-NC) and Robin Hayes (R-NC) (Charlotte Observer, 1/20). Sam Kazman, legal counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, also blasted Clinton's plan, saying, "Tobacco revenues, it seems, are more addictive than nicotine" (CEI release, 1/19).
On The Other Hand
Kay Kahler Vose, communications director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, called on lawmakers to "undertake comprehensive tobacco prevention efforts" and reinforce FDA regulatory powers over nicotine (CFTFK release, 1/19). "We frankly have wondered why the Justice Department has not moved more quickly against the tobacco companies, and we are encouraged to hear that they are moving now," Vose said (Globe, 1/20). Bill Novelli, president of the campaign, welcomed Clinton's announcement and said he hopes the federal suit will force tobacco companies to compromise on several provisions omitted from state settlements, such as federal regulation of nicotine, limits on indoor smoking and penalties if the industry fails to reduce teen smoking (USA Today, 1/20). Mathew Myers, general counsel for the National Center for Tobacco Free Kids, said, "If the government loses, it's a significant loss. But if the industry loses, it's the end of the tobacco companies as we know them" (Rubin, Los Angeles Times, 1/20). The cigarette makers named in the suit include: Philip Morris Companies, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Lorillard Tobacco and Brown & Williamson Tobacco (New York Times, 1/20). See (#1) for more State of the Union coverage.