The Marlboro Woman

The AG's campaign fund is nicotine-stained--and critics say she's dragging her feet on tobacco suits.

Attorney General Gale Norton is adamant in saying she doesn't want to go after big tobacco companies the way so many other states have.

If that sounds like the position of somebody who has taken money from those tobacco companies, that's because it is.

When Norton ran for re-election in 1994, she took a check for $2,000--one of her largest single contributions--from the New York office of Philip Morris U.S.A., makers of Marlboro, according to records on file with the Colorado Secretary of State. Those records also show a $500 contribution from the Washington office of RJR Nabisco, the parent company of R.J. Reynolds, makers of Camel cigarettes. She took $250 each from The Cigarette Store Corp., the Smokeless Tobacco Council Inc. and the Tobacco and Candy Political Action Committee.

The contributions came in the summer of 1994, when the attorney general of Mississippi was filing a suit against the big tobacco companies. That suit claims that tobacco executives knew for decades their products were not only deadly but addictive. Because of that, the Mississippi AG said, the companies should be held responsible for the portion of the state's budget being spent on indigent patients with health troubles that resulted from smoking. Other states expressed an interest in suing, and many did. Earlier this month, Alaska became the 23rd state to sue.

Norton did not respond to calls from Westword, but she has said publicly that the reason she doesn't want to get involved is that the cost of litigation will be too high, and she wants to save the taxpayers' money.

"It's pretty darn difficult to sue tobacco companies without spending a lot of the taxpayers' money," says Jeanne Adkins, a Republican representative from Parker who was co-manager of Norton's unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1996. Norton's chief deputy, Marti Allbright, adds that the issues are complex, and that means spending a lot of staff time figuring it all out. "This is largely a resource issue," Allbright says.

Critics pounce on that line of reasoning.
"We just feel Colorado should be involved, because this truly is a health issue," says Ann Cobb of the American Cancer Society. Pete Eialick, president of the Group to Alleviate Smoking Pollution (GASP), adds, "I just wish she would go after these guys the way she goes after common criminals."

Adkins says that she and Norton are sensitive to those charges but that smoking is an individual choice. Adkins says her own father died of lung cancer, but she doesn't think that means the government should attack tobacco companies.

But health advocates argue that, although the suits may be costly, a settlement would more than offset any initial outlays of money. It wasn't clear even a year ago that there would be a settlement at all, but recent reports of secret negotiations have indicated a settlement of perhaps $300 billion is being considered by all sides in the states' suits. Many observers say it's a foregone conclusion that the tobacco companies will be paying something.

"The whole ballgame has changed," says Dr. Bob Schrier, head of the department of medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. Schrier says he met with Norton three years ago in an unsuccessful attempt to get her to join the other states suing the tobacco companies.

Proponents of the suits also say that because so many other states have now laid the legal groundwork, litigation against the companies is not nearly as complex or expensive to bring. Other states and health-related organizations have volunteered to provide copies of everything they have done and to work with the attorney general's office so that nobody there will have to reinvent the wheel.

Seventeen of the 23 states have retained outside law firms to handle the legal work in the suit. They would be paid from any eventual settlement, and most have agreed to work for far less than the standard rate they would get working for a private person or company.

Adkins says she is skeptical that the state could enter a suit without incurring high costs. She adds that under the complex rules of governmental accounting in Colorado, a settlement paid to the health department to help with indigent patients could not be automatically transferred to the attorney general's office to pay for the cost of litigation.

But Norton's decision could actually cost Colorado money. If there is a settlement, those parties that join in the suit late may get less money. "We're cognizant of that as a possibility even if we sued right now," Allbright says, but she adds that there are still a lot of states that have yet to file suit.

Norton recently announced that she wants to join in any universal settlement, but Representative Ken Gordon, a Denver Democrat, was unimpressed. "She basically sent a letter saying that if you are giving out money, we want some," Gordon says. "She went from one weak position to a different weak position."

Gordon is sponsoring a resolution in the General Assembly that urges Norton to sue the tobacco companies. There is no language in House Joint Resolution 1036 that calls for the state to spend any money, but Adkins nevertheless asked the House Judiciary Committee to send the resolution to the Appropriations Committee. Rep-resentative Bill Kaufman, a Loveland Republican, saw that as a way to quietly kill the resolution without forcing a floor vote on the issue. Kaufman's father also died from lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking, but unlike Adkins, he thinks Colorado should be more aggressive in going after tobacco companies. "I'm unreasonable when it comes to tobacco," Kaufman says.

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