Tobacco bill advances to center stage Measure would help state's case against cigarette companies

'It's about protecting kids'

Legislation changes rules in mid-suit, opponents charge

March 08, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

With billions of dollars potentially at stake, top state officials and health advocates will square off this week against the tobacco industry and business groups over legislation designed to hurt cigarette manufacturers.

Two legislative committees will hold hearings on what is emerging as one of the most heavily lobbied bills of the General Assembly's 90-day session -- a measure designed to help the state win its pending lawsuit against the cigarette companies.

The measure, which was crafted by Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., would rewrite state law to undo a key ruling last year by a Baltimore judge that crippled an important element of the state's court case.

The bill would give the state a significantly better chance of winning the suit and recouping billions Maryland taxpayers have spent on health care for cigarette-related illnesses in the state Medicaid program, say combatants on both sides of the issue.

Tobacco industry representatives and others in the business community say the bill unfairly changes state law in the middle of a lawsuit.

But Curran and others say it merely "clarifies" existing statutes, and they are trying, instead, to focus the debate on the industry and the dangers of smoking.

"I want to make it clear that Maryland's tobacco lawsuit, and this legislation, are about improving public health," Curran said. "It's about protecting kids and cleaning up a public health crisis the tobacco industry started."

Friday, Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced his support for the Curran bill, as did former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

Anti-smoking forces such as the American Lung Association have also promised to lobby for the legislation.

"The bill will give the state the leverage it needs to hold the tobacco industry responsible for their activities and their 40 years of lies," Glendening said.

Tobacco company representatives have unleashed hard-hitting rhetoric against the proposal.

Curran's bill, they said in a position paper distributed last week, represents "unbridled governmental power at its worst, where the state passes rules that benefit only the state. This is a fly-by-night approach to law, seen only in third-world countries."

While Curran anticipated a fight from the tobacco industry -- which has 14 lobbyists registered against the bill -- he now faces the aggressive opposition of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and several other business trade groups such as Maryland accountants and petroleum distributors.

The opponents say the legislation would tilt the legal playing field in the middle of a court case to benefit the state, a precedent that the General Assembly could use in the future to the detriment of other industries.

"It's fundamentally unfair and it's just not appropriate for the state to take this step," said Champe C. McCulloch, the head of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. "What they're saying is that if the defendant is unpopular and there's a lot of money at stake, it's perfectly OK to change the rules."

Without the bill, Curran says the state would have to introduce evidence on each of tens of thousands of smokers in order to prevail on several of the lawsuit's claims.

With the bill, the state would be able to argue generally about the tobacco industry's behavior in the past and still collect damages on behalf of the state's many smokers.

The legislature's presiding officers are divided on the legislation and its prospects are uncertain.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. supports it, while Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is opposed.

"I've got a dozen reasons why I don't particularly care for the bill," said Miller, a Prince George's Democrat.

He said the bill could lead to lawsuits by the state against gun manufacturers or companies that produced lead paint.

"It would be a feeding frenzy for trial lawyers," Miller said.

More than 40 states, including Maryland, have filed suit to recover damages from the tobacco industry. Three states have settled and one suit is pending.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering legislation that would bring a wide-reaching settlement with the tobacco industry and would likely put an end to Maryland's court case.

Complicating the tobacco issue in the State House is the prominent role of Baltimore attorney Peter G. Angelos, who is representing the state in its lawsuit and who stands to make a small fortune if the state prevails and collects an award of what could be several billion dollars.

Some lawmakers and others have criticized the state's arrangement with Angelos -- under which he would collect 25 percent of any award to the state. Indeed, some key legislators have said the Curran bill will die if Angelos' fee isn't cut.

"The bill ain't going nowhere until the contract is rewritten," said Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat who heads the Senate committee considering the bill.

Angelos has assured state officials that he is willing to cut his fee by at least half. He declined to comment on the issue last week.

But the strong-willed Angelos, who is also the majority owner of the Baltimore Orioles, has said he does not want it to appear that he is reducing his fee under State House pressure, legislators said.

Angelos is expected to propose a new fee arrangement sometime after this week's legislative hearings.

"We'd like to renegotiate," Curran said of Angelos' fee. "Mr. Angelos said he would do that and I have his word that will happen."

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee will hear SB 652 at 1 p.m. Tuesday. The identical House measure, HB 972, will be heard by the House Judiciary Committee at 2 p.m. Thursday.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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