U feels impact as smoke clears from deal: Many University professors who served as witnesses agree with the deal’s terms

Chris Hamilton

Eighty days of trial, 39 million documents and eight University professors later, the state, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and the tobacco companies inked a $7 billion settlement Friday.
Each professor played a role as different as the changing seasons since the civil trial began. One professor testified professionally for the plaintiffs, two were subpoenaed as hostile witnesses for the defense and the rest were professional witnesses for the defense.
No matter where they stood, though, most agreed with the settlement.
State Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III said University involvement made sense.
“We have some phenomenal people there,” he said. “Minnesota has been a leader at collecting information.”
University researchers who squirrelled away tobacco industry-related information often provided pivotal testimony in the trial. Of the eight University professors on the original witness list, three took the stand.
Those who were paid and considered professional witnesses did not disclose how much they received.
The most high-profile faculty member to testify was history professor Hyman Berman. As the defense’s leadoff witness, he gregariously gabbed to jurors about the state population’s general knowledge regarding health risks associated with smoking.
Before taking the stand, Berman told reporters he would not be controlled by lawyers on either side. He said his research would stand on its own merits.
Berman came on strong, claiming that for decades people chose to smoke while understanding its dangers. But the pendulum swooped back during cross-examination. Berman endorsed the reputation of a former University medical school dean whose book contradicted Berman’s testimony.
“Whoever it helped it helped, and whoever it hurt it hurt,” Berman said of his testimony after the settlement.
The other faculty member to testify for the defense, associate professor Brian McCall of the Carlson School of Management, wouldn’t return repeated phone calls. McCall contested the state’s and Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s statistical formula for estimating the $1.7 billion they originally demanded.
During interviews, those who didn’t testify laid out what information they would have liked to provide jurors.
Otolaryngology professor Kathy Daly was scheduled as a hostile witness. Defense attorneys would have grilled her about the money estimates, because she was once the state epidemiologist.
Graduate School associate dean George Green would have questioned Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s knowledge regarding smoking and health. Dr. David Benditt, a cardiologist, would have stated the 300 risks associated to heart disease and claimed insurance companies should know how to rate them accordingly.
On the state’s side, epidemiology professor Cheryl Perry did testify. She tackled the influence cigarette advertising has on teenagers’ decisions to start smoking.
Humphrey said her testimony spellbounded the jury. Her research concluded the industry effectively targeted young people, he said.
While on the stand, Perry told the courtroom more than 80 percent of adult smokers start before they’re 18 years old. One example of youth-orientated advertising she provided showed Fred Flinstone sparking a Winston cigarette.
Perry said she wished the trial had gone to the jury. But she said she’s pleased with the settlement, because a guilty verdict would have been stuck in the appellate courts for years.
“I’m really happy they’re taking down the billboards,” Perry said of the settlement’s provision banning tobacco advertising on billboards or on mass transit. “Something like that can’t come from a court decision.”
A possible counter to Perry’s testimony would have been advertising professor Ronald Faber, one of three cooperative faculty witnesses who didn’t take the stand for the defense.
Faber said that after studying research literature for about five years on smoking advertising and young people, he concluded ads do not influence children’s decisions to start smoking.
“The reasons people choose to smoke are predominately from their peers and to some secondary effects, family,” he said.
Faber said he had no qualms about participating in the trial for the defense. Presenting science accurately and without bias was important to him, he said.
Faber said the settlement’s section restricting advertising aimed at youth is useless.
“I don’t think that’s going to make any difference, frankly,” he said. He added only strengthening measures prohibiting the sale of cigarettes to minors will stop them from starting smoking.
Jean Forster, associate professor of Epidemiology, received a subpoena from tobacco attorneys last May. For the last 10 years she’s helped create and study government controls on smoking such as banning machine sales. She would have been treated as a hostile witness by the defense.
Forster said the settlement represents a victory for Minnesota — and herself.
“I have been harassed by tobacco industry representatives, so I have a real satisfaction in watching the tobacco companies brought to their knees,” she said.