Jeebus, you’d think $120 billion would come in handy when we invade Iran.
After eight months of courtroom argument, Justice Department lawyers abruptly upset a landmark civil racketeering case against the tobacco industry yesterday by asking for less than 8 percent of the expected penalty.
As he concluded closing arguments in the six-year-old lawsuit, Justice Department lawyer Stephen D. Brody shocked tobacco company representatives and anti-tobacco activists by announcing that the government will not seek the $130 billion that a government expert had testified was necessary to fund smoking-cessation programs. Instead, Brody said, the Justice Department will ask tobacco companies to pay $10 billion over five years to help millions of Americans quit smoking.
“We were very surprised,” said Dan Webb, lawyer for Altria Group’s Philip Morris USA and the coordinating attorney in the case. “They’ve gone down from $130 billion to $10 billion with absolutely no explanation. It’s clear the government hasn’t thought through what it’s doing.”
The Justice Department offered little explanation for the figure. Associate Attorney General Robert D. McCallum Jr. and members of the trial team declined to answer questions as the court session ended. In 2001, then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft tried to settle or shelve the government’s racketeering case against the industry before a public outcry forced its revival.
“It feels like a political decision to take into consideration the tobacco companies’ financial interest rather than health interests of 45 million addicted smokers,” said William V. Corr, director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “The government proved its case, but the levels of funding are a shadow of the cessation treatment program that the government’s own expert witness recommended.”
Sources and government officials close to the case said the trial lawyers wanted to request $130 billion for smoking-cessation programs but were pressured by leaders in the attorney general’s office, particularly McCallum, to make the cut. Arguments within the Justice Department continued behind the scenes through yesterday morning, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the controversy over the matter.
Anti-smoking advocates assailed the decision as a self-inflicted blow that would help the tobacco companies’ bottom line and miss a well-earned chance to help American smokers.
William B. Schultz, a former Justice Department official who oversaw the lawsuit under the Clinton administration, said that “it’s disappointing, to say the least, that at the final stages of this litigation they have pulled their punches in such a significant way. This is the loss of a significant opportunity to advance public health. Smoking is the number one preventable disease. It kills 400,000 people a year.”