Joe Curran faces Joe Camel et al. Tobacco suit: Attorney general must join agreement or take a gamble and go it alone.

November 18, 1998

ATTORNEY General J. Joseph Curran Jr. does not need another headache as he ponders whether Maryland should join other states in a massive tobacco settlement.

But Joe Camel might have put a little more stress on the attorney general. A Harvard study released yesterday showed that smoking by college students, normally lower than their younger high school counterparts, has jumped precipitously. Experts say is a result of heavy tobacco-company advertising and marketing campaigns aimed at youngsters and starring Joe Camel.

Part of Mr. Curran's dilemma is that the proposed settlement he is mulling would retire Joe Camel as a seller of cigarettes.

But the bigger question for the attorney general is whether the deal is substantive enough to buy into. If so, the state would forgo its suit against the industry, set for trial in April.

The agreement would ban use of cartoon characters, such as Joe Camel, in ads and promotions; extend billboard restrictions to all outdoor ads and restrict the size of retail signs; and ban tobacco product placements in television shows, video games, movies and theatrical productions.

It would also allow states access to industry records and personnel for enforcement purposes; ban clothing and merchandise with brand-name logos; ban brand names at stadiums and arenas; prohibit free samples except for adults; and prohibit the industry from opposing state and local laws to limit youth access.

The momentum seems to be in favor of settlement. A dozen states, including California and New York, have signed on, and ++ President Clinton gave his endorsement yesterday.

Besides avoiding a trial that would have no guaranteed outcome and could be tied up in the courts for years, the deal would provide Maryland with at least $5.2 billion over 25 years.

This is the kind of money that delights the public and thrills politicians. So why is the attorney general slow to take Maryland into the settlement?

Questions remain. Indeed, giving states only five days to accept seems patently unreasonable, since the 200-plus page agreement is complex and is taking a battery of legal minds to decipher.

The tobacco industry has been known to carefully craft documents to gain advantage and then exploit every loophole.

Besides not allowing adequate time for public discussion, the proposal seems weak on public health concerns and does not deal with national tobacco policy.

Also, while the cartoon Joe Camel would go, the Marlboro Man would stay.

The modest agreement, which achieves some limited anti-smoking goals, leaves much to politics. Congress and the ,, White House should consider it their mandate to close loopholes and help states monitor the proposal, if accepted by the court, to keep the pressure on the industry.

Meanwhile, it is not an easy call for Mr. Curran. To go it alone would most certainly mean the tobacco companies would be free to train its big guns on the state. A final resolution could be years away. On the other hand, money from a settlement could be put to good use immediately to discourage teen smoking in Maryland.

It is more than a roll of the dice. It's a huge gamble in which Joe Curran has to outwit Joe Camel.

Pub Date: 11/18/98

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