Tobacco negotiations draw deal proponents, foes

WASHINGTON (AP) — Tobacco talks take on new urgency this week: Not only do attorneys have just 40 days before the first state lawsuit against cigarette makers goes to court, they’ll find out on Wednesday if public health experts — considered key for any deal to pass Congress — are on board.
Even supporters of a deal say the talks remain tenuous. But pressure mounted on cigarette makers on Tuesday as New Mexico became the 30th state to sue the industry. The attorney general of tobacco-friendly North Carolina said he also might consider suing.
Skepticism about the proposed deal, however, is mounting. Tobacco foes say a proposal that generated excitement last week — for the industry to pay up to $1.5 billion a year in fines if they can’t cut teen smoking — really equals a four-cents-a-pack fine. As drafted, the deal would severely curb sick smokers’ right to sue for damages, critics say.
The American Lung Association is lobbying anti-tobacco activists to condemn a bailout for the tobacco industry on Wednesday at a meeting in Chicago. The negotiators compiled a list of more than 30 tobacco-industry concessions that the attorneys hope will quiet the critics.
Among the latest agreements: A ban on virtually all public and workplace smoking, with exemptions for bars and restaurants, and a requirement that the industry pay for smoking cessation programs for poor smokers.
“What’s on the table now goes beyond what any single legal victory could achieve,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger. “If every state won their lawsuits tomorrow, we could not have the historic impact on children and on the public health that appears possible through these discussions.”
American Lung Association chief executive John Garrison responded, “The tobacco industry has never demonstrated an ability to negotiate in good faith or live up to its promises. … The health community should bring all its pressure to bear against a deal.”
More than 100 anti-tobacco activists will be at the meeting, called by the American Medical Association to quell growing fears about the secret deal-making. The AMA originally opened the meeting to the public, declaring, “we believe in openness.” But on Tuesday the organization declared the session closed as a clash appeared imminent.
But even attorneys considering signing a settlement are agonizing about two questions that could kill any deal: Is it fair to restrict sick smokers’ right to sue cigarette makers in return for tobacco limits once considered unthinkable — even though those same smokers have lost in the courts again and again for 30 years? And how can the government fashion an agreement letting cigarette makers sell addictive, dangerous nicotine for 25 more years?
“The nicotine issue is truly a deal-breaker,” said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a participant in the talks.
“We have to make sure to recognize how much we can do to save a generation from the disease and addiction that … our courts have never been able to remedy,” he added on Tuesday, although he noted he is still skeptical.
Cigarette makers have agreed to pay more than $300 billion, submit to some Food and Drug Administration advertising curbs and to label cigarettes with harsh warnings.
In return, negotiators are nearing agreement on provisions that would make it harder, maybe even impossible, for smokers to sue in the future. They include a ban on the class-action suits and punitive damages, and severe curbs on the right of anyone to sue if they started smoking after seeing the new cigarette warnings.