Local News

No Need for NC to Join Tobacco Wars

Posted June 17, 1997 12:00 a.m. EDT

— For years, it was simply a field of dreams. Now, its a battlefield with attorneys general and tobacco companies leading their troops into the tobacco talks.

The talks are at a crucial point. There are reports of only one unresolved issue, and that's whether tobacco companies should pay punitive damages. With a possible multi-billion dollar settlement near, there are questions why North Carolina is not joining the list of states suing the tobacco companies.

The simple answer is that we don't have to. According to our Attorney General, if there is a settlement, North Carolina will be included in the payout. And if figures at the talks Tuesday are accurate, we could be talking about more than $6 billion for North Carolina over the next 25 years.

Thirty-seven states are going to battle filing suit against tobacco companies in order to recoup the health care costs of treating smokers. North Carolina is missing from the list despite the fact that this state doles out big money to treat smokers.

According to the American Lung Association, every year in North Carolina, more than 11,000 people die from smoking related diseases. And taxpayers pay out more than $830 million every year in smoking-related medical costs. Attorney General Mike Easley says he's right where he wants to be.

With a settlement drawing near, the outcome could mean legislation. In that case, North Carolina would share with every other state. Our state has nothing to lose-- not a dime for not filing a lawsuit.

If a settlement is reached, Easley says it will be nationwide. The tobacco companies have talked about settling by paying out $300 billion over 25 years. If that happens, it will be divided among all states, not just the ones listed on the lawsuit. But a settlement is not a certainty.

Easley emphasizes that the legalities are more difficult than people think. There are many players with many different interests to accommodate.

If a settlement is not reached in Washington, North Carolina would have to either negotiate with the tobacco companies themselves, or file its own lawsuit.

Right now, there's a state law that prevents Easley from filing a lawsuit to recoup health care costs from the tobacco companies.

Non-smokers do have one major advantage to gain in the tobacco talks. For years, all of us have been paying the price for smoking-related illnesses. Any monetary settlement would result in years of payments by tobacco companies to the states. But the burden of that payoff would shift to those who smoke in the form of higher cigaratte prices.

Industry experts say cigarette prices could jump as much a 70 cents a pack to cover the cost of a settlement.