Attorney General Christine Gregoire on Friday said a proposed $360 billion settlement of lawsuits against the tobacco industry could mean “literally millions of dollars on an annual basis, forever,” for Washington taxpayers.
Gregoire, one of the key negotiators, called the deal “a tough, realistic, effective step toward solving the most serious health problem in America today.”
Gov. Gary Locke, a fellow Democrat, also endorsed the deal, saying it was “better than dragging this issue out in court toward an uncertain result while 3,000 more children start smoking every day.”
The settlement, which still needs approval from Congress and the White House, would at least partially reimburse state taxpayers for billions of dollars they have shelled out for huge medical bills directly related to smoking, Gregoire said.
The deal also would mean no Marlboro Man or Joe Camel billboards or advertising, cigarettes sold only from behind store counters, strong efforts to get teens not to start smoking, and other sweeping changes, including possibly a move to nicotine-free smokes.
But Gregoire said she doesn’t fully trust the tobacco industry to not unravel portions of the deal and doesn’t know for sure that Congress will approve it. So the state will press ahead with standby plans for a full-blown lawsuit in King County Superior Court next year, she said.
It is that suit, along with ones brought by 39 other states, and the specter of multibillion-dollar setbacks, that drove the tobacco industry to the table, she said.
Officials at the Spokane Regional Health District responded to the settlement with cautious optimism.
“This could have a tremendous impact on kids,” said Linda Jackson, health educator for the district. “It will be good to see Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man gone.”
Jackson said she hopes the settlement will lead to expanded public health programs and drive up the price of cigarettes, so fewer teenagers will buy them. In the meantime, the district will continue its efforts to curb smoking.
Idaho would get more than $10 million a year under the settlement, said David High of the state attorney general’s office.
“It will, I believe, significantly reduce minors’ smoking, which will ultimately save some lives,” said High, chief of the civil litigation division.
Idaho was the 35th of the 40 states to join the lawsuit, filing its suit on June 9.
“As it turned out, our timing was ideal, because we managed to avoid a lot of the expense a lot of states incurred,” High said.
Idaho held off until its state Health and Welfare Department had finished a lengthy review of smoking-related medical expenses, he said.
The state anticipated a costly discovery process starting in a few months if the suit wasn’t settled.
The settlement would sock the industry with a $360 billion bill to be paid over the next 25 years, including an upfront punishment of $50 billion.
The dollars would be used for health care and other purposes determined by Congress and the states. In exchange, the industry would gain some immunity from lawsuits.
“But it was never about the money,” Gregoire said. Bringing the industry to heel was more important, including government control over nicotine content, marketing, a billboard ban, stop-smoking programs, blunt warnings about the deadly potential of smoking, and more, she said.
She called it “a full arsenal of weapons” to combat tobacco problems, including addiction among impressionable young people.
About 8,000 Washington residents die of tobacco-related illness each year, and nationally, 5 million children living today will die prematurely because of a decision to start smoking, Gregoire said.