Fighting big tobacco

March 11, 1998|By J. Joseph Curran Jr.

AN army of lobbyists (14 at last count) has amassed in Annapolis because I have introduced legislation in the General Assembly (Senate Bill 652 and House Bill 972) that they say "targets" the tobacco industry.

My bill does target this industry; it would strengthen Maryland's lawsuit against cigarette manufacturers to recoup past Medicaid costs by clarifying that the state does not have to drag every smoker before a court to prove he or she suffers from a smoking-related illness. A court ruling has left the state in this untenable position.

It's ironic that the cigarette lobby is so sensitive about being "targeted." Big tobacco companies have spent decades targeting children as a way to replace the smokers its products kill. Now that I am pursuing legislation that turns the cross hairs on its industry, the tobacco lobby has begun a well-financed campaign to say the bill I pursue is unconstitutional, anti-business and -- can you believe this from the makers of cola-flavored cigarettes -- unfair.

Major settlements

In Mississippi, Florida and Texas, the cigarette industry has capitulated on the courthouse steps (settling for $3.6 billion, $11.3 billion and $15.3 billion, respectively) because of laws or rulings that allowed these states to proceed, not person by person but by using sophisticated statistical evidence demonstrating what percentage of past Medicaid budgets went to treat smoking-related illnesses.

Year after year, the state has paid the bill for residents who became ill because they smoked. A large part of the lawsuit is about getting that money back. The tobacco industry must pay because it promised to disclose the health effects of its products, but instead covered up the truth.

The legislation that I want passed would not "rewrite" Maryland's substantive tort law; it would refine and specify the type of evidence allowed only in the lawsuit by the state against the tobacco industry.

Finally, this bill would not apply to any other business. The classic tobacco lobby line is: "Watch out, Maryland business owners. You're next." Don't inhale that smoke -- it's bad for your mental health.

If information comes forward showing another industry has done things the tobacco industry has done, such as covering up reports that show a product to be harmful and denying that its product is addictive and contributing to the death of 7,500 Marylanders a day, then, yes, I would be interested in taking such an industry to court. But it doesn't exist.

There is no commercially available product that when used as directed causes sickness and death. Nor is there another industry I am aware of that knew such information about its product and adopted a sophisticated strategy to cover up such information for decades.

Think twice when you hear that this legislation is anti-business, unfair or unconstitutional. I don't believe that represents the position of Marylanders, particularly because it sounds like the cheap rhetoric propagated by the cigarette lawyers.

When they try to pass that one to you, just say no.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. has more details on his office's World Wide Web site at www.oag.state.md.us.

Pub Date: 3/11/98

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