U hears

by Brian Close

The tobacco companies’ nemesis asked the University community to help him snuff out smoking Wednesday.
Minnesota Attorney General Hubert H. “Skip” Humphrey III updated more than 150 people at the Mayo Auditorium on the status of his groundbreaking lawsuit against the tobacco industry in a speech sponsored by the School of Public Health.
Humphrey’s suit on behalf of Minnesota has gained national attention as the first state lawsuit to make it to trial. Mississippi, Texas and Florida have settled their lawsuits out of court, and 36 other states await trial.
The lawsuit by the state of Minnesota and Blue Cross Blue Shield seeks $1.7 billion in compensation for the costs of medical treatment they say was paid for smoking-related illnesses. There is also the possibility of billions of dollars to be awarded in punitive damages.
The plaintiffs claim the companies suppressed research on the dangers of smoking, marketed to children and manipulated nicotine levels. The industry denies the allegations.
After more than two months of trial, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported Monday that unnamed sources told the paper the two sides have agreed on the framework of a $5 billion settlement. But, neither side would comment on the status of talks.
Humphrey said in his speech that he would settle if the industry gives a full disclosure of the truth about its business practices, bans marketing to children and pays the state for what he said were the state’s losses.
“If this industry wants to settle on our terms, my door is open,” he said.
Humphrey also spoke of the difficulty of combatting the immense legal force of the tobacco companies. He said 30 law firms were involved, with more than 2,000 motions argued.
Humphrey talked about his recent success in obtaining more than 33 million pages of tobacco company documents.
After the speech, Humphrey answered questions from the audience, which included many medical faculty members and students.
Humphrey said one particular argument, dubbed the “death credit,” brought by the tobacco companies was immoral and outrageous. The argument was that smokers actually save the state money because they die sooner than nonsmokers.
Judge Kenneth Fitzpatrick ruled the defense could not use this “death credit” argument, saying it was inappropriate because it implies a benefit from an early death.
The state’s claim for losses rests on proving there were actually costs to the state by smoking-related illnesses.
“The claim that it costs the government money is really tenuous,” said Carl Phillips, a professor in the School of Public Health. “It’s a reasonably justifiable fight built on misconstrued economics and dubious legal claims.”
Phillips said although he despises the industry, he can’t help but pull for them, as he feels the lawsuit is politically expedient.
KSTP AM 1500 talk show host Jason Lewis, who has done many shows about the case, agreed.
“What was the state doing?” Lewis asked. “They were partners in the conspiracy by licensing the product and taxing it; they were in bed with the tobacco companies,” he said.
But Humphrey said the industry has acted illegally and dishonestly, and must be punished. He added that his goal is to reduce smoking in Minnesota.
“Our goal is better health, stopping the smoking, and helping young people not start,” he said.