Maryland set to sue tobacco companies State hopes to recover money spent treating Medicaid patients

November 17, 1995|By Marina Sarris and Diana K. Sugg | Marina Sarris and Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

SILVER SPRING -- Maryland plans to sue the nation's tobacco manufacturers to recoup the almost $50 million it spends annually treating smoking-related illnesses among the poor, the governor and attorney general announced yesterday.

At a news conference at Holy Cross Hospital, the two said they have launched a search for private law firms that would handle the suit -- and its hefty costs -- in exchange for a portion of any winnings.

When the lawsuit is filed, probably in the spring, Maryland would become the fifth state to sue cigarette companies to recover money spent treating smoking-related illnesses under the Medicaid program. Since May 1994, Mississippi, Minnesota, West Virginia and Florida have filed similar lawsuits based on individual state laws.

"The tobacco industry should have to be held accountable," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening, an opponent of smoking whose mother died of tobacco-related lung cancer.

"The taxpayers should not have to pay the medical costs of people who were made sick by an industry that refuses to accept the responsibility for its actions," he said.

Mr. Glendening noted the decision to sue comes, not coincidentally, at a time when Congress is seeking to slash Medicaid funding to the states.

The governor estimates that Maryland could lose up to $2.8 billion in those funds over seven years, forcing it to make painful cuts affecting senior citizens and others. Given those choices, "we're wasting this money fixing the damage the tobacco industry has done" to ailing smokers, Mr. Glendening said.

But a tobacco company spokesman said this type of lawsuit serves merely to enrich the lawyers who file them.

"Our view of these Medicaid suits is that they are at best misguided efforts to gain a quick fix to a much larger problem of rising health care costs in the states," said Joe Helewicz, spokesman for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., maker of Kool cigarettes.

Philip Morris U.S.A., which makes Marlboros, said Maryland would lose any suit it filed. "The state has no viable legal basis upon which to sue the cigarette manufacturers," the company said in a statement last night.

Eric Gally, president of the Smoke Free Maryland Coalition, praised the state's decision, saying the money it recovered could pay for cancer prevention and neonatal programs.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who has been considering such a suit for more than a year, said he decided to take the step of seeking outside legal help in order to save money.

He wants private law firms to bear the "astronomical" costs of the case, which could take years to resolve, he said. "We simply are spread too thin to take on a case like this by ourselves. We don't have the money," he said.

Nonetheless, Mr. Curran said that he would remain in control of the suit, which might allege violations of consumer protection law.

His office sent more than 100 requests to major law firms around the country yesterday asking for proposals on their fees and how they would handle the case.

The Baltimore law firm of Peter Angelos, which has won cases for workers against asbestos companies, is already interested. would hope very much to be involved in such litigation," said H. Russell Smouse, a senior attorney.

Mr. Curran acknowledged that the tobacco industry has a long record of beating back lawsuits, as well as more money than state governments to bring to the fight.

In the hundreds of cases filed against tobacco companies in the past 40 years, the industry has almost always won, experts said.

But Mr. Curran said that recent disclosures have made cigarette companies more vulnerable to such suits.

Internal documents made public in the past few years show that the tobacco industry knew nicotine was addictive as early as the 1960s. Attorneys believe those and other disclosures will enable them to win.

"We're very confident that when these cases get to actual live juries, that their focus will be on the conduct of the tobacco industry, and if they look at the conduct, they will deem it to be very gross, serious misconduct over all these years," said Edward L. Sweda, senior attorney with the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University School of Law, which acts as a resource and monitors anti-tobacco suits.

In Minnesota, for instance, the state is using consumer fraud, deceptive advertising and antitrust laws. Joe Loveland,

spokesman for the Minnesota attorney general's office, said that tobacco companies ran advertisements in 1954 in local papers announcing that they were going to investigate smoking and a possible link to cancer, and report their findings to consumers. But they never kept that promise, Mr. Loveland said.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield have joined the Minnesota suit as co-plaintiffs, seeking to recover money for the higher rates their members pay to cover the costs of tobacco-related health problems.

Like the other states, Minnesota is using private attorneys.

None of the lawsuits is expected to go to trial for months.

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