Tobacco settlement is called misleading Health groups urge Md. officials to pursue suit rather than sign


Maryland health groups urged state officials yesterday to reject the proposed tobacco settlement, saying that many of its purported benefits are illusory and warning that it could hamstring future attempts to battle smoking.

Most significantly, Smoke Free Maryland, a coalition of 65 organizations that includes all the state's major health advocacy groups, wrote Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. yesterday urging them not to sign the deal.

"We think we can get a better deal by taking Maryland's case to court," said Dr. Albert L. Blumberg, president of Smoke Free Maryland.

Moreover, he said, accepting the settlement could weaken political support for potentially more effective measures against teen smoking, such as increasing the state's tobacco tax or banning cigarette vending machines.

"People will say, 'Why do we need a law? We have a settlement,' " Blumberg said.

But more states announced they would sign the deal by the deadline set by the tobacco industry, noon tomorrow, and some states that have shared Maryland's skeptical stance appeared to be moving toward the deal.

By last night, at least 16 states of the 46 that have not already settled had announced they will sign the deal. No state had said it would reject the agreement.

Curran, who did not negotiate the deal, said he agrees with much of the criticism.

"There's no question that some of the loopholes the public health folks have pointed out are indeed loopholes," he said.

But Curran expressed frustration that so few states are indicating they will hold out.

Asked whether a group of hard-line states might reject the deal or insist on more time to study it, he replied: "Give me their names."

Curran said he would meet today with Peter G. Angelos, whose " firm has prepared the state's case, and come up with a decision in consultation with Glendening by late today or tomorrow morning.

Curran's dilemma is that if the state takes its case to trial in April, a jury can offer only money, and there is no guarantee that a jury award would exceed Maryland's share of the settlement -- $4.2 billion paid over 25 years, with a possible delayed bonus of as much as $1 billion more.

As part of a verdict, a judge might be able to order the tobacco companies not to engage in certain deceptive practices, but legal experts say it is unlikely a verdict could ban tobacco billboards, as the settlement would do.

Curran could roll the dice and hope that the industry would make Maryland a better settlement offer before or during trial.

But if the industry stood firm, Maryland conceivably could miss out on several billion dollars and wind up as the only state with cigarette billboards.

As anti-smoking activists pored over the 200-page settlement document, a tangle of interlocking clauses as baffling as a federal tax form, they concluded that the industry's lawyers had brilliantly crafted the wording to concede little while appearing to concede much.

For example:

The settlement bans clothing and other merchandise bearing cigarette brand names.

But another passage permits such merchandise to be sold or given away in unlimited quantities at tobacco-sponsored sporting or musical events, such as the Winston Cup auto races or Kool Jazz Festival.

People receiving such merchandise could display it indefinitely, limiting the effect of the restriction.

"Obviously the T-shirts are going to be worn in neighborhoods," Curran said.

The settlement prohibits tobacco billboards, but it permits tobacco posters of up to 14 square feet on stores and at gas stations.

"There could be 2-by-7-foot signs on every store that sells cigarettes," Curran said.

In several much-publicized instances, the industry agrees to do things it already must do anyway.

The settlement bans cartoons in advertising, but R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. agreed last year to drop the only major tobacco cartoon character, Joe Camel.

The settlement requires the industry to make public many internal documents and disband two controversial groups, the Council for Tobacco Research and the Tobacco Institute, but all that was already required under Minnesota's May settlement.

Even the money is not a sure thing. Payments to Maryland and other states would be reduced if states share in revenue from future increases in the federal cigarette tax.

Payments would also be cut if cigarette sales decline nationally -- giving states a pecuniary interest in keeping sales high.

The settlement appears to prohibit all, or nearly all, future tobacco-related lawsuits filed by states or localities.

The inclusion in one clause of the word "exposure" seems to extend the prohibition to suits on second-hand smoke, even though that term never appears.

Even as the settlement would pour hundreds of millions of dollars into anti-smoking campaigns aimed at young people, it would prohibit "attacks" on or "vilification" of tobacco companies or their brands.

That could make anti-smoking ads ineffective, while weakening the case for states to put other money into harder-hitting campaigns, health advocates say.

One group that fights second-hand smoke wrote Curran a letter saying it may take legal action against the state if Maryland signs the settlement.

"We're a legal action group," said Al Ertel, a Rockville resident and co-chairman of the Coalition for Smoke Free Maryland Workplaces.

He pointed out that his group sued the state in 1992 over enforcement of workplace smoking restrictions and raised the possibility that it could do so again.

"The tobacco companies know they are looking at a lot of liability in the future from second-hand smoke," Ertel said.

"This is their way of building in a roadblock to that kind of recovery."

Pub Date: 11/19/98

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