Debate and Issues Index

draft settlement

A Weak Tobacco Deal

The deal negotiated by eight state attorneys general and the tobacco industry would do far too little to combat teen-age smoking, the primary goal that any legal settlement should advance. Instead, this proposal is mostly a financial agreement in which the companies would pay off state lawsuits for Medicaid costs incurred for smoking-related diseases. The states that were not at the negotiating table have been given until Friday to accept the settlement. That is an unreasonably short time for the public to review a deal of this magnitude. At a minimum, there needs to be opportunity for comment and input from health experts.

For small states, a quick settlement may be hard to resist. But for big states like New York and California, which are both participants, giving up the right to sue -- a condition of the settlement -- means handing over to the tobacco industry the big legal cudgel it fears most. Many observers believe the industry would not have agreed to any deal without the two big states' participation.

New York State's Attorney General, Dennis Vacco, helped negotiate the proposed settlement, which could reportedly bring the state $25 billion over 25 years. The money is enticing, but the deal, which has not been subject to any public debate, does not look good enough for New York to abandon its lawsuit. Although Mr. Vacco has the power to make this deal, the lawsuit cannot be withdrawn until the court overseeing the case approves the settlement. There is good reason for public health advocates to argue before the court that the public should have some say in whether New York goes forward with this deal.

The odd political circumstances also militate against a rush to settlement. Eliot Spitzer, who is locked in a tight election vote count with Mr. Vacco and may yet win the New York State Attorney General's office, is one of those who opposes the settlement as too lax on public health measures.

The proposal would pay the states roughly $206 billion over 25 years. Minnesota, Florida, Texas and Mississippi, which have already settled their suits for a total of more than $40 billion, would not be part of this deal. Apart from the money, the industry would agree to some advertising restrictions, such as bans on billboard ads and promotional gifts. The plan would set up a foundation to reduce teen-age smoking and offer funding for a smoking-cessation campaign. But these measures are fig leaves for a plan that would have very little impact on tobacco use. Tobacco companies would have no trouble shifting the nearly $6 billion a year they spend on marketing to formats that are not prohibited.

The total settlement is expected to raise cigarette prices by 35 cents per pack over five years. Health economists argue that the cost must increase by $1.50 to $2 a pack to have a significant impact. The plan contains no industry penalties if teen-agers' consumption continues to rise. New data show that youth smoking has soared in the past decade, a reflection of tobacco marketing efforts. The plan's elements are not ambitious enough to attack this trend. Significantly, the public health community was not allowed at the negotiating table.

If the states reject the deal, they can still seek individual settlements. Indeed, Minnesota achieved a substantial settlement on its own. It will receive $6.1 billion, along with a billboard and promotional product ban, a ban on placing tobacco products in movies shown nationwide, more lobbying disclosure and a decree banning industry misrepresentation of health risks. Evidence from the Minnesota trial, which forced the industry to settle, will be useful in trials elsewhere. There is something to be said for a uniform nationwide deal. But the health-related benefits must be greater than what Mr. Vacco has bargained for.

NEW YORK TIMES -- November 17, 1998