Minnesota set for tobacco industry trial

ST. PAUL (AP) —When Minnesota’s attorney general announced nearly three years ago that the state was suing the tobacco industry, it looked like Hubert Humphrey III was ramming a brick wall.
Things look much different now.
The case brought by the state and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota goes to jury selection Tuesday in a trial closely watched for its impact on the $45 billion-a-year tobacco industry. And Humphrey is considering a campaign for Minnesota’s governorship.
In the lawsuit filed in August 1994, Humphrey accused the tobacco companies of conspiring to hide what he said the defendants had known for decades — “that their products are deadly and addictive.”
The lawsuit accuses the tobacco industry of consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices, false advertising, breach of responsibility to protect the public health and violation of antitrust laws.
Minnesota was the second state to sue to recover Medicaid money spent treating smoking-related illnesses, following Mississippi.
“There were a few people that said you’re doing the right thing, but politically this ain’t the right thing,” Humphrey said in an interview this week. “But I’m not elected to do what is politically the right thing.”
Humphrey and his advisers had been looking at tobacco, but the lawsuit didn’t really gel until U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., led a congressional inquiry in 1994 that disclosed tobacco industry documents suggesting cigarette makers had known about — but failed to disclose — the health dangers of smoking.
After Mississippi and Minnesota sued, other states — eventually 40 in all — began filing similar lawsuits.
The tobacco industry’s armor cracked in March when the smallest tobacco company, Liggett Group Inc., broke ranks and agreed to open its files in return for release from civil liability.
The other companies fought the move, saying they would be harmed by release of the Liggett documents. But in December the documents were turned over to a congressional committee, posted on the Internet and turned over to attorneys handling the Minnesota case.
The tobacco industry took another big hit earlier this month, when a California biotech company agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to grow high-nicotine tobacco secretly in foreign countries so Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. could “control and manipulate the nicotine levels in its cigarettes.”
That marked the first criminal charges arising from a 3-year-old tobacco investigation by the Justice Department.
As the case against tobacco was building, the industry was talking secretly with state attorneys general, hammering out a $368.5 billion national settlement proposal to end the state lawsuits and give cigarette makers immunity from future suits. The proposal is now being reworked in Congress.
Any national settlement is expected to supersede settlements reached by individual states; it’s unclear what effect a national settlement would have on the Minnesota lawsuit if it comes in the midst of the trial.
The fight also has personal implications for Humphrey, a career politician and son of Minnesota’s most famous political figure.
Humphrey’s father, the late Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, smoked up to two packs of cigarettes a day until he quit in the 1950s.