Tobacco jurors could decide

by Melanie Evans

If smoking is a disease, as plaintiffs in Minnesota’s tobacco trial contend, a $1.7 billion damage award sought by the state and Blue Cross Blue Shield could be the cure.
University medical community members considered the effects of the trial and its outcomes Wednesday as State Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III addressed a crowd at the Mayo Auditorium.
Public health experts defined the stakes in Minnesota’s trial as greater than the dollars and cents involved. Plaintiffs and policy makers argue that combatting tobacco industry practices drain the state’s limited public health resources.
“The tobacco industry is a deliberate source of an epidemic,” said Dr. Harry Lando, professor of epidemiology.
“It is by far the leading preventable cause of death,” he said. “It’s hard to come up with a bigger public health threat than that.”
Barring an out of court settlement, the 12 jurors in Judge Kenneth Fitzpatrick’s St. Paul courtroom face days of deliberation to determine tobacco’s liability — if any — for Minnesota’s health care costs.
If awarded, the lion’s share of the claim — $1.3 billion — would fall to Minnesota. It represents 7 percent of adult care costs gathered during an 18-year period between 1978 and 1996.
Blue Cross is seeking $460 million to cover 15 percent of all adult insurance payments for the 18-year period.
Statistical consultants culled the state’s estimates using data from annual reports from Blue Cross, Medicaid and the General Assistance Medical Care program.
However, the formula used to generate the estimate came under fire in the last days of testimony. The defense team’s final three witnesses attacked the validity of the state’s damage assessment.
Among them was Brian McCall, a Carlson School of Management associate professor, who testified the state’s formula for assessing the damages was statistically invalid.
Models used by the state inflated health care costs attributed to smoking because they did not account for an adequate number of variables, said Peter Biersteker, legal representative for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., one of 11 defendants in the case.
The industry is accountable for more than the financial costs to the state, said Jean Forster, associate professor in the School of Public Health. Forster studies the effects of local and state policy on consumer behavior.
“However it is quantified, tobacco is more deadly than any other product on the market,” she said, citing numerous chronic and fatal tobacco-related health problems.
Listed by both the prosecution and the defense as a potential witness in Minnesota’s tobacco trial, Forster was subpoenaed by the defense for a deposition, but was never called to serve as a hostile witness.
Forster said she considers smoking America’s No. 1 public health threat.
Dr. Stephen Hecht, a professor in the Medical School’s Cancer Center, recently conducted a study that isolated a carcinogenic compound in nonsmokers and linked it to tobacco. It affirmed other research that found secondhand smoke as a cause of cancer.
The results also solidified Hecht’s beliefs that point to smoking as a poignant threat to public health.