Lawyers taske ride on tobacco road

February 20, 2000|By DAVE BARRY | DAVE BARRY,Knight Ridder/Tribune

Just when you think the War on Smoking cannot possibly get any more entertaining, up pops a new batch of lawyers to save the day.

Before I tell you about the latest legal wrinkle, let's review the key points in the War on Smoking so far:

POINT ONE: Cigarettes are evil, because smokers smoke them and consequently become sick or dead.

POINT TWO: The tobacco companies are evil, because they make and sell cigarettes.

POINT THREE: Therefore, in 1998 there was a big settlement under which the tobacco companies, by way of punishment for making and selling cigarettes, agreed to pay more than $200 billion to 46 states and numerous concerned lawyers.

POINT FOUR: The tobacco companies are paying for this settlement by making and selling cigarettes as fast as humanly possible.

POINT FIVE: At the time of the settlement, the states loudly declared that they would use the money for programs to eliminate smoking, which is evil.

POINT SIX: Perhaps you believe that the states are actually using the money for this purpose.

POINT SEVEN: You moron.

POINT EIGHT: In fact, so far the states are spending more than 90 percent of the tobacco-settlement money on programs unrelated to smoking, such as building highways.

POINT NINE: This is good, because we need quality highways to handle the sharp increase in the number of Mercedes automobiles purchased by lawyers enriched by the tobacco settlement.

So, to boil these points down to a single sentence: The War on Smoking currently is a program under which states build highways using money obtained through the sale of cigarettes. Is everybody clear on that?

Good! Now let's move on to the entertaining new wrinkle. It seems that a new batch of lawyers, who were not involved in the original tobacco litigation, has been pondering the 1998 settlement, and they have come to the conclusion that it has a very serious legal flaw, namely: They are not getting any of the money.

Ha ha! That was just a joke, and I will instruct the jury to disregard it. The new lawyers are in fact unhappy because they believe the tobacco settlement unfairly leaves out a group of victims who deserve a hefty share of the money. And those victims are: smokers. That's right: Smokers, without whom there would not even be a tobacco settlement, are not getting a piece of the pie! So the new lawyer batch believe that billions of dollars of the tobacco settlement should go to smokers who receive Medicaid for illnesses that they have suffered as a result of smoking.

I realize this sounds complicated, so let's break down the way the cash would flow if these new lawsuits are successful:

1. SMOKERS would give money to THE TOBACCO COMPANIES in exchange for cigarettes.

2. THE TOBACCO COMPANIES would then give the money to THE STATES (and their lawyers).

3. THE STATES would then give the money to SMOKERS (and their lawyers).

4. THE SMOKERS would then presumably give the money to THE TOBACCO COMPANIES in exchange for more cigarettes.

Perhaps you're thinking: Isn't this inefficient? Why not eliminate the middle steps and simply require tobacco companies to give cigarettes to smokers for free?

The trouble with that idea is that it would defeat the two main purposes of the War on Smoking, which are (1) to provide the states with money; and (2) to provide lawyers with, well, money. And this would be an especially cruel time to take the War on Smoking money away from the American lawsuit industry, which already suffered a devastating setback recently when the Y2K computer glitch, tragically, failed to be disastrous.

So we should not be critical of the way our political and legal leaders are waging the War on Smoking.

They have proved once again that this great nation, with its can-do attitude, can take any problem, no matter how sad and hopeless it seems, and figure out a way to turn it into increased Mercedes sales. Although I do not mean to cynically suggest that the only beneficiaries of the War on Smoking are luxury-car dealerships. Lear jets are also selling well.

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