Tobacco executives acknowledged to a congressional committee Thursday that nicotine is addictive and causes health problems, even as they pleaded anew for passage of a global liability settlement that would insulate them from some future lawsuits.
“Is nicotine addictive?” asked Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., a member of the House Commerce Committee.
“It would be,” replied Laurence Tisch, co-chairman and chief executive officer of Loews Corp., which owns the Lorillard Tobacco Co.
“Yes, under the terms that people use today, I would say it is,” said Steven Goldstone, chairman and chief executive officer of RJR Nabisco.
Said Vincent Grierer Jr., chief executive officer of U.S. Tobacco Inc.: “That would be accurate.”
Some cigarette executives made similar acknowledgments in letters to the Senate Judiciary Committee last year.
But Nick Brookes, chairman and chief executive officer of Brown & Williamson Tobacco Cos. demurred Thursday on addictiveness of tobacco. “I personally would not use that term,” he said.
Asked by Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, whether tobacco products cause health problems, such as lung cancer, Goldstone replied, “Yes, I think smoking plays a role in lung cancer.”
Answered Tisch: “I think it plays a role.”
A number of cigarette company executives wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee last year conceding that tobacco was addictive.
The face-off came as the industry executives traveled to the Capitol to argue on behalf of the settlement they negotiated in June with 40 states - and exhort lawmakers to include the provision limiting further lawsuits.
“We cannot agree to any legislation that does not include the limited commonsense civil liability protections,” Brookes said.
But neither Democrats nor Republicans seem eager to grant the request of an industry that has produced documents showing it targeted children in advertisements for tobacco products in the 1970s.
“Our only goal must be to pass legislation that protects our children,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., an anti-smoking activist. “We don’t need the tobacco industry’s blessing to do this. We don’t even need their agreement. All we need is the political will to do what’s right.”
The industry maintains that language affording it immunity from future lawsuits is necessary to protect it from bankruptcy.
A deal struck in June between the industry and state attorneys general would end 40 state lawsuits against the industry if the companies pay $368 billion over 25 years and voluntarily change such practices as marketing. Part of the settlement money would include payments to treat sick smokers. In return, the industry would get protection from most future lawsuits. The deal must be ratified by Congress if it is to become law.
But the industry’s case has been harmed by recently released secret documents showing that in the 1970s, tobacco companies targeted children with their marketing practices and conducted research to increase the nicotine levels in their products.
In testimony before the Commerce Committee on Thursday, tobacco executives condemned those strategies and pledged to make public a cache of new documents on those subjects.
“It is immoral, it is unethical as well as illegal to market to people underage,” conceded Goldstone, chairman of RJR Nabisco.
Goldstone and four other industry executives pledged to make public hundreds of thousands of documents sought by Minnesota prosecutors who are suing the industry for consumer fraud and deception.
Those documents, also dating back to the 1970s, contain the industry’s research into whether nicotine is addictive and its plans to market tobacco products to children, said Scott Strand, deputy counsel in the Minnesota attorney general’s office.
“This is a very good decision,” committee Chairman Thomas Bliley Jr., R-Va., told the executives. “Now, the American people will have a chance to read those documents for themselves.”
One document released Thursday indicated that tobacco companies have little hope of persuading Congress to ratify the global settlement.
The Dec. 22 memo from Bozell Sawyer Miller Group, a public relations firm, recommends an advertising and media campaign to push voters to pressure their lawmakers to enact the June settlement.
“Make politicians feel that failure to act positively on that package runs political risks because voters will punish them,” it said.
“People had to understand that the industry position was made on good faith,” said Scott Williams of Bozell Sawyer Miller. “If for some reason the settlement didn’t work out, people should know that the industry was sincere about it.”