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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Waxman Tobacco Documents

The release by Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) of shocking documents by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco company that focused on the youth market for cigarette addiction again teaches groups too willing to settle for too less with this industry that political momentum and public opinion are still growing.

Every month, the tobacco companies are losing ground in three critical areas — the Congress, outraged public opinion and the media. Who would have thought that both the Washington Post and the New York Times would editorialize earlier this month against limiting the liability of these companies — the key immunity objective of industry negotiators with the state attorneys general in their proposed deal to Congress last June.

Public opinion and the ever telling newspaper cartoons are reflecting disgust and cutting satire with the nicotine-peddling billionaire corporations. Recent reports about the aggressive marketing by Big Tobacco overseas to hook millions of youngsters in the Third World are showing folks here in America just how shameless and avaricious this cancer-producing industry continues to be.

On Capitol Hill, fewer and fewer politicians want to associate or be seen with Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds or other cigarette companies. Still the big payors of campaign money, these companies are becoming pariahs nonetheless.

The state by state settlements with Attorneys General also show that the bargaining power of the industry is still eroding. Recall the national deal for $368 billion over 25 years that the tobacco giants signed with these state officials. Settlements, under this overall umbrella agreement, have occurred with Mississippi, Florida and on January 16th with Texas. Each of these agreements have required the tobacco companies to concede more to the Attorneys General on the way to the big showdown in Minnesota.

Jury selection starts this month for the trial most feared by Big Tobacco because Attorney General Skip Humphrey and his lawyer, Michael Cirisi, have collected the most damaging corporate documents and prepared the most meticulous case. Humphrey, who is running for Governor, has demanded that all these voluminous documents, filling a warehouse, must be released before there is any chance for avoiding a trial and settling the case. Presently, these documents are under a court secrecy order.

Meanwhile in Washington, the issue is no longer whether to approve the June 1997 national settlement sent to Capitol Hill by the state attorneys general. That deal is too weak and therefore gone. It gave the tobacco industry practical immunity from future lawsuits, severely limited the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulatory authority and let the industry keep secret the documents that show deception, prevarication, coverups and nicotine manipulation, for instance.

The struggle in Congress will be over doubling the $368 billion total over 25 years, over rejecting any immunity, over expeditious FDA regulatory authority and over funds going to strengthen the ability of public health groups to reduce tobacco smoking, especially among young people and children.

Within the public health community, the parties are divided over how much to demand from Congress. One faction keeps thinking that the opposition to the industry may have crested; the other tougher coalition believes that the tide is turning ever more powerfully, pointing out that their meeker compatriots have been behind the curve for over 18 months in their amazement at the growth of the opposition to Big Tobacco.

What the anti-tobacco forces need to keep in mind is the utter folly of agreeing to immunity from lawsuits in exchange for the industry’s concessions. It was not FDA, Congress or the media which first galvanized the momentum. Rather it started with the private lawsuits against immense odds that began prying open the corporate files and encouraging the company whistleblowers to step forward.

The system of tort law and litigation got the ball rolling at the Congress, the FDA and the mass media. To forget this central point is to forget what brought the historic drive against the addictive scourge of tobacco and its 420,000 fatalities a year in the U.S. to this point.

You don’t give up what brought you there and give other culpable industries in the future a precedent to go to Congress and get their own immunity from legal responsibilities for harm done.