Smokers Seek Portion of Settlement
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- As states debate how to spend their first payments from the $206 billion national tobacco settlement, some smokers are planning lawsuits claiming some of the money belongs to them.
The settlement was reached in 1998 with 46 states seeking to recover money spent treating smoking-related illnesses of people on the Medicaid insurance program. However, many states plan to use the money for projects totally unrelated to tobacco.
Lawyers for smokers were planning to file lawsuits this week against Pennsylvania, Vermont, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Rhode Island. Some were filed Wednesday while others were delayed by winter storms. Similar suits are pending in other states.
``It became crystal clear recently that states weren't going to do the right thing. They're going to spend money on bridges and highways and not give any money to the people on whose back they won the settlement,'' said Antonio Ponvert, an attorney helping coordinate the lawsuits.
The lawsuits do not specify damages and Ponvert said it was impossible to know exactly how much money was involved. But he said it likely is in the ``billions of dollars'' nationwide.
Rhode Island Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty, who has proposed dividing his state's $56 million annual payment between anti-smoking campaigns and general health care programs, said the national tobacco settlement was meant for a broader purpose.
``This was not an attempt by the state at all to get money for individuals,'' Fogarty said. ``This was an attempt to stop the tobacco companies from perpetrating a fraud on people and help people break the cycle of addiction.''
The national litigation alleged that tobacco companies made an addictive product and sold it without properly warning the public.
Lawrence Tyler, 54, a former truck driver from Burlington, Vt., is among the new plaintiffs. He smoked four or five packs a day for 43 years and now has emphysema and can't work. He said he was angered by Vermont's debate over how to spend the settlement.
``The tobacco companies, they made cigarettes addicting to people. Why should the state get the money?'' he said. ``Why shouldn't we get a little something out of it?''
The $206 billion settlement covers 46 states. The four remaining states settled separately for an additional $40 billion.
The National Conference of State Legislatures said only about 8 percent of the first payments made in the settlement with the 46 states have been budgeted for anti-smoking campaigns, with the remainder slated for general costs or to cover losses from tax cuts.
The new suits hinge on a provision in Medicaid law which requires states to pursue a party responsible for an injury. The money recovered would first go to a state to cover its expenses, then to the federal government for its contribution to Medicaid costs. The remainder would be given to anyone hurt by the responsible party.
Last year, Congress waived its interest in any proceeds from the tobacco settlement.
``It became plain as day when the federal government waived its right to get any money back that there's money left,'' Vermont attorney Richard Cassidy said.
Paul Billings of the American Lung Association in Washington, D.C., said he couldn't comment directly on the lawsuits since he hadn't seen them. But he criticized states for how they're spending the settlement.
``I think that states are squandering the opportunity the settlement offered to reduce the horrendous toll that tobacco takes ... and reduce the future Medicaid liability,'' Billings said.
Similar lawsuits previously were filed in California, Wisconsin and other states. In the California case, a tentative ruling in state court indicates the lawsuits have some merit, Ponvert said.
In Wisconsin, however, a federal court ruled the lawsuits violated the 11th Amendment, which generally prohibits federal suits seeking monetary damages against a state by citizens of the state or any other state. That ruling has been appealed.