Debate and Issues Archive

draft settlement

Tobacco Activist Just Won't Quit: A Cancer Specialist is the Only Person Keeping the State and $11.3 Billion Apart.

  Philadelphia Inquirer
  Daily Magazine
  September 1, 1999

Physician Robert B. Sklaroff holds part of the lawsuit he has filed against the tobacco industry.
(Michael S. Wirtz/Inquirer Staff Photographer)

By Alfred Lubrano
Inquirer Staff Writer

Dr. Robert Sklaroff stands alone.

A profound hater of tobacco, the cancer specialist from Elkins Park is the one person between Pennsylvania and $11.3 billion in money from the tobacco industry.

The money is part of the nationwide $206 billion settlement between most states and the industry. But no state can get its share until all court appeals are exhausted. The settlement resolves state claims for health-care spending on sick smokers.

Sklaroff, who has lost in Philadelphia Common Pleas and Commonwealth Courts and is contemplating taking his case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, is not going away.

"I wouldn't sleep at night if I didn't do it," says Sklaroff, a diminutive 48-year-old with a professorial air. "I persist in the absence of others not doing it."

Sklaroff, who says he has seen too many patients and relatives die of tobacco-induced cancers, believes that making a deal with Big Tobacco now immunizes the industry from further lawsuits.

The state is agreeing to the settlement now because "people are mesmerized by the money," Sklaroff says.

Commonwealth Court upheld the Common Pleas Court decision that Sklaroff lacked legal standing to intervene in the settlement.

Other activist groups once stood side by side with Sklaroff in opposing the settlement, but they all have dropped out. Some fear warnings from lawyers representing Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher that the state would seek damages for any delays in the tobacco payout. Others have said it is time to stop fighting and simply help direct the state to spend the settlement wisely on antismoking measures.

Immune to threats, Sklaroff stands his ground. "I will not be intimidated," he says. Friends compare him to a pit bull, the kind of activist who locks his jaws and will not unclench.

At first glance, Sklaroff doesn't look like such a tough guy: bow tie, wrinkled blue pin-stripe suit with a can of Mountain Dew in the left pocket, green argyle socks and shoes that could use some polish.

But the surface isn't the story.

"There's no way to get rid of him," says friend and fellow activist Jeff Barg, president of Tobacco-Free Pennsylvania. "He has incredible energy and doesn't need the normal amount of sleep. He's extremely bright and has the ability to play four to five chess games at once."

Barg is referring to Sklaroff's other fights, including his active opposition of the merger of Blue Cross of Western Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Blue Shield, and his efforts to unionize fellow doctors.

Critics sniff and dismiss Sklaroff as a gadfly and a "true believer" with whom no one can reason.

"We believe that Dr. Sklaroff's appeal is not only frivolous but dangerous," says Sean Connolly, Fisher's press secretary. "We're concerned he'll tie this up for another year or longer. Then every state could get their first payment, and Pennsylvania would be left high and dry."

Reeder Fox, a private attorney representing Fisher and the Attorney General's Office in the settlement, also says Sklaroff's case is frivolous. "The overriding issue with him is he has no legal support for his position," Fox says.

Fox says the settlement - hammered out among state attorneys general and the industry last November - is "above and beyond anything we could have dreamed of," and disagrees with Sklaroff that Big Tobacco is forever immunized from further lawsuits.

"We've achieved a settlement to provide health care to people with disease," he says.

Critics, who note that lawyers stand to reap billions of dollars, expect Fox to say such things.

"Fox just wants to become a millionaire in the deal," Bill Godshall, director of SmokeFree Pennsylvania, says. Fox denies this.

In the end, Godshall says, "it's a money game and somebody's got to stand up. I think Bob Sklaroff is a hero."

The son of a doctor, Sklaroff was impressed early with his father's ability to help people. In the 1960s, he added to his personality a radical's imperative to change the world, he says. Couple that with his self-described "obsessive compulsive, anal-retentiveness" and you begin to get an understanding of what motivates the man.

"I'm such a renegade," he says, smiling. "People suggest I'm Don Quixote. But these are important issues."

To be honest, Sklaroff concedes, he also derives "a certain vicarious, egocentric thrill from having the attorney general picking on me."

Sklaroff plans to file his appeal to the Supreme Court within two weeks. In the meantime, he'll spend as much free time as there might be in his life with his wife, neurologist Patricia Loudis. He'll also devote himself to his "major hobby - my kid."

Sklaroff's son, Michael David, 9, is a blue belt in karate, and Sklaroff takes his son to classes three times a week. The idea of regular exercise has even rubbed off on the doctor, who says he is trying to get into physical shape for the first time in his life.

"You live only once and have to max out on all the opportunities you have," Sklaroff says.

He adds that he won't soon end his fight against the settlement.

"If I lose this, I'll sleep well knowing I did my best," he says. "But I will not lose. Because I am correct."