Contrite tobacco executives plead for settlement $368.5 billion deal in doubt as some now admit smoking's perils

January 30, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Four years after the tobacco industry famously swore that nicotine was not habit-forming, a more contrite cohort of tobacco chiefs journeyed to Capitol Hill yesterday to concede that "by some definitions" smoking is addictive and it does contribute to disease.

Lobbying for a settlement that would insulate them from future class action lawsuits, the chief executives of five tobacco companies also promised to immediately release millions of pages of secret documents they have fought for years to keep under wraps.

"I would prefer [my children] would not smoke as minors. I would prefer they not smoke as adults," Laurence Tisch, co-chief executive of Loews Corp., which owns the Lorillard Tobacco Co., told the House Commerce Committee under oath. "I think it's a risky thing."

The new-look tobacco industry has come a long way since April 1994, when cigarette makers stood shoulder to shoulder and swore before the same committee that they did not believe tobacco was addictive.

The image of tobacco executives with their right hands raised defiantly helped galvanize public opinion against the industry and spurred an army of attorneys to file lawsuit after lawsuit against them.

Those lawsuits in turn have chased the industry back to Congress, this time to plead for passage of the $368.5 billion settlement that would terminate all outstanding legal matters -- including a lawsuit by Maryland -- and protect tobacco companies from most major legal action in the future.

'State of siege'

Geoffrey C. Bible, the chief executive of Philip Morris Cos. Inc., the No. 1 cigarette manufacturer, implored lawmakers to "cut this Gordian knot of conflict and shape a future in which we

could live as what we are -- good corporate citizens."

"After 40 years of constant and increasingly angry litigation," Bible said, the industry is operating "as if under a virtual state of siege."

But relief may not be at hand. The settlement, reached between the industry and 40 state attorneys general in June, is under attack from all sides of the political spectrum.

Democrats told tobacco executives they may not go along with the settlement's central concession to the industry: immunity from future class action lawsuits.

Liberal members of Congress also insisted the final deal include strong restrictions on international marketing of cigarettes to children.

Looking askance at settlement provisions strictly curbing tobacco advertising, Republicans said they could not go along with legislation that explicitly denied an industry its constitutional right of free expression.

In recent days, Republican leaders in Congress -- fearing their party's fingerprints will be left on a deal deemed good for the unpopular tobacco industry -- have said the settlement is as good as dead.

Only Clinton can save it?

Even its most ardent proponent, Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, said only President Clinton may be able to save it.

Direct involvement from the White House could breathe new life into the deal. But with Clinton entangled in swirling sexual allegations, a presidential white knight might not be riding to the rescue.

"Each side is positioning themselves to blame the other side for [the deal's] collapse," said Richard Scruggs, a Mississippi lawyer who helped negotiate the settlement. "It's mutually assured destruction."

Although none of the five chief executives on Capitol Hill had been there four years ago, all were reaping the whirlwind sowed in those hearings, when under oath, tobacco chiefs swore tobacco was not addictive and that their companies did not manipulate the levels of nicotine in their project.

Since then, documents have provided evidence that directly contradict those assertions. Minnesota Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III yesterday released fresh evidence of nicotine manipulation.

Reprising the 1994 show, Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette of Colorado and Gene Green of Texas asked each chief executive whether he believed his company's products were addictive or caused lung cancer, heart disease or mouth cancer.

No emphatic denials

This time, the answers were not emphatic denials, but they were not exactly whole-hearted confessions either.

All the executives agreed smoking played a role in lung cancer. Tisch said smoking was a factor in heart disease. And while Steven F. Goldstone, chief executive officer of RJR-Nabisco, makers of Camels, and Tisch unequivocally stated that nicotine was addictive, others demurred.

Bible said only that nicotine "has mild pharmacological effects, and that, under some definitions, cigarette smoking is 'addictive.' "

House members continued to unveil leaked documents, showing still more evidence that tobacco companies have marketed their products to children.

High school students

One document from Lorillard boasted, "The success of Newport has been fantastic during the past few years. The base of our business is the high school student."

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