Following six months of testimony, a Louisiana jury this week began deciding a case against Big Tobacco. Plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit want cigarette makers to finance medical tests and programs aimed at helping people kick the habit. Tobacco industry lawyers counter that the dangers of smoking have been well-known for years and the decision to start is a personal choice.
From courts of justice to halls of power, the tobacco issue is an emotional one. In Washington this week, the people at the core of the industry testified before Congress about buying out quota holders and tightening up regulations.
Currently, there are three bills before various House subcommittees with price tags ranging from $14 to $19 billion. The bill receiving the most mention is H.R. 140, which was presented by Democratic Representative Mike McIntyre of North Carolina. It offers quota owners $8 per pound over a five-year period with the payments based on 1998 production levels. There is no payment safety net but those growing tobacco outside traditional production regions will be subject to a 100% penalty. The measure further grants the FDA control over manufacturing, marketing, packing, and labeling of tobacco products. This provision has the majority of cigarette makers concerned about a total ban on tobacco products.
The groups supporting the buy-out were comprised of growers and anti-smoking groups alike.
Donald L. Moore, owner and operator, Moore Farms: "We in the tobacco producing community see no sustainable way out of a 50-year old program except for some sort of quota compensation and producer transition payments. Simply stated: a buy-out."
Matthew L. Myers, President National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids: "While we are prepared to support legislation, in fact work hard for legislation, that is consistent with the principles laid out by the President's commission, we will and will have to oppose any legislation that either contains provisions or can serve as a vehicle for legislation granting FDA with authority weaker than that which we endorse."
Cigarette makers support a buyout but not without conditions. Most of the tobacco makers testifying did not want to have to pay for the buyout, did not want price supports that would trigger problems with the WTO and did not want to give the FDA any authority over any aspect of the product from seed to cigarette.
One lone voice that appeared to be choosing its own fate was mega-producer Philip Morris which openly supports the McIntyre bill.
Michael Pfeil: Vice President , Corporate Communications, Altria/Philip Morris: "I think actually, this type of legislation opens up the market, it becomes a free market which not only gives the farmers option of selling that product here domestically but I think also makes them more competitive in the global market."
Currently, there is no official timetable for when the bills will come up for a vote.