Tobacco Settlement

The closed door high level negotiations for the great Tobacco settlement are underway. State Attorneys General, who are suing the tobacco companies to recover Medicaid costs of treating smoking-related illnesses, are at the table. So are the CEOs of the big companies, including Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco and their corporate attorneys. So too are the trial lawyers, without whose year after year persistence and discovery of internal, very incriminating company documents, not much would be happening.

In close touch are key Clinton and Gore assistants, members of Congress and representatives of the Food and Drug Administration.

There is one participant in these closed door meetings who is a surprise entry. He is Matthew Myers, the general counsel for the National Center for Tobacco Free Kids. The Center has been running very tough newspaper notices with headlines like “Liggett’s Statements Prove: The Tobacco Companies Lied” above a picture of company executives swearing to tell the truth before Cong. Henry Waxman’s Congressional Committee a few years ago.

Mr. Myers has been a prominent member of an ever broadening coalition of health associations, consumer groups and other citizen organizations. This anti-tobacco coalition includes grass roots activists, labor, educational and medical associations. The American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and the American Lung Association are prominent members.

The White House has told members of this coalition that President Clinton will not sign off on a legislated settlement without its approval. So it is a matter of some consequence that, without notifying his fellow coalitionists, Mr. Myer has been invited to have a seat at the confidential table with the tobacco companies and the various other attorneys of interest. While meeting with the health/citizen coalition to discuss and plan strategy, he was without the knowledge of colleagues, meeting secretly with the other side.

On discovering his dual role, his colleagues were very upset. Was he representing the anti-tobacco coalition at these meetings? Did he agree to put immunity from judicial or regulatory accountability — a key desire of the tobacco drug dealers — on the table for discussion? Who brought Mr. Myers into the inner circle — the White House? And for what purpose — to give the discussions pseudo-credibility?

Mr. Myers is very aggressive and is not above calling the CEOs of the Cancer, Heart and Lung Associations to get them to over-rule their own staff advocates in Washington with whom he has been having many meetings and exchanges.

The tobacco companies and their one thousand corporate attorneys and numerous public relations firms are very good at dividing and ruling, at compromising law makers and buying and renting political power brokers. They now have turned such attention to the health/citizen community opposing them.

Leaks from the secret discussions have been contrived. The proposed settlement figures of some $300 billion, spread over 25 years, when broken down into today’s dollars and divided by the 25 million Americans who will die from an addiction they were induced into when they were 11,12,13,14,15, or 16 years of age by the tobacco industry’s marketing strategies, is a paltry sum indeed. About $12,000 per fatality! No wonder, after the news reports, the stock of the tobacco companies skyrocketed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Money is the least of these giant corporate drug dealers’ worries. They want to lift the regulatory regime that is forming around them, especially regarding nicotine and other additives in their tobacco. They want no restrictions on their global strategies to hook the youngsters of Asia, South America and Africa. They want their ability to maximize their cancer-causing product sales without alterations in their corporate structures. The growing coalition of major health, civic, labor, education and medical groups must issue a statement of principles and positions that make clear their opposition to any coddling settlement ringed with immunity and license. Whatever the closed door negotiations come to, this coalition needs to maintain the arms length leverage and independence to maintain the trust of the people and the public health commitment to present and future generations.

Matthew Myers denies he is representing the public health community in the negotiations with Big Tobacco. But it is clear, to the other sides of this table, that he is more than an observer.

The impression he is creating, wittingly or unwittingly, is that he speaks for or is interpreting the positions of the coalition that he has so decisively misled in the past several weeks. He cannot control such impressions, nor can he avoid being used, unless he leaves the room and preserves the solidarity of the vigilant pro-health community.

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