Edmondson Looks Back on Historical Negotiations
There were only eight of them. Eight attorneys general were chosen to face off against the world’s largest tobacco manufacturers in a legal battle that would have repercussions for generations.
The lawyers for R.J. Reynolds, Phillip Morris, Brown and Williamson and Lorillard had been here before. This was not the first time someone had attempted to hold them responsible for their deceptive claims of safer cigarettes and their youth-aimed marketing campaigns, but no one had ever launched a successful legal attack on the industry’s tactics. No, they had definitely been here before, but across from them sat eight state attorneys general representing taxpayers and children.
This time would be different. The eight lawyers the companies faced were chosen to negotiate on behalf of 46 states and six other U.S. territories. Among them, Oklahoma’s Attorney General Drew Edmondson, North Carolina Attorney General Mike Easley, Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher, Washington Attorney General Chris Gregoire, North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heikcamp, California Attorney General Dan Lungren, Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton and New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco.
“We knew that we were on the right side of the issue,” Edmondson said. “We all know, as we did then, that smoking causes cancer, but we didn’t have a single case where we could prove an individual’s cancer was caused by smoking. We were facing scores of lawyers with a seemingly endless budget. We were essentially eight people holding a single card – state-by-state litigation. The card had to be a winner, and it was.”
The 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), which forever changed the way tobacco companies do business, was actually the result of a years-long legal war in which one state after another challenged the companies’ marketing practices.
There had been previous attempts to hold the companies responsible for their practices, but to no avail.
In 1996, Oklahoma became the 14th state to file suit against the tobacco giants. The state suit, filed in Cleveland County District Court, sought reimbursement for more than $1 billion in Medicaid money spent treating tobacco-related illnesses between 1980 and 1993.
“One by one, states were realizing the costs associated with treating tobacco-related illnesses,” Edmondson said. “Attorneys general began filing lawsuits in state courts, but they faced an industry that had never lost a court case. If we were to be successful in changing the tobacco industry, it was going to take a concentrated, coordinated effort, so that’s what we did.”
Edmondson and his seven counterparts from across the country began negotiating with the four companies. A global settlement agreement had been reached in 1997, but that settlement required Congressional approval.
“The bill approving the settlement died in Congress,” Edmondson said. “The tobacco lobby originally supported it, but after a number of amendments were added, they pulled their support. The proposed settlement then died.”
The attorneys general and the tobacco companies returned to the drawing board, this time working on an agreement that only settled the states’ claims and would only require approval from the court.
Talks hit another snag when R.J. Reynolds and Brown and Williamson walked away from the negotiating table.
“We continued to negotiate with Lorillard and Phillip Morris, and eventually, R.J. Reynolds and Brown and Williamson returned to the table,” Edmondson said. “That was a real turning point. We were eventually able to agree on substantial marketing restrictions, public health money for the states and a fund dedicated to funding counter-marketing that would offset the industry’s pro-tobacco message.
The MSA was finalized Nov. 23, 1998.
“The MSA was the successful end to a hard-fought battle,” Edmondson said. “The results have been a declining number of children who smoke and an increased number of former smokers. The last decade has seen a decline of 100 billion in the number of cigarettes smoked. Generations of Americans are going to be healthier and more knowledgeable about the repercussions of smoking because of the MSA. When you think of it in those terms, this truly was a battle for the ages.”