Every year, millions of taxpayer dollars are spent on the tobacco-related illnesses of the poor and the elderly who rely on Medicaid and Medicare funds to pay their medical bills.
But if tobacco companies intentionally withheld scientific research corroborating the detrimental health effects of tobacco, should tobacco companies be required to reimburse taxpayers for those medical costs?The state of Mississippi thinks so, as does Florida and West Virginia. And now Utah and at least two dozen other states are looking at Mississippi's legal arguments in a landmark lawsuit with national implications.
"We are certainly very interested and we're going to follow up with more research," said Carol Clawson, solicitor general in the Utah attorney general's office.
"We anticipate it will be a pretty expensive battle. We may want to wait and benefit from their battle without spending our own money, let the legal issues get decided there. If it looks as if it will go favorably for the states, then we can get started here."
The Mississippi lawsuit has generated national headlines. The lawsuit is based on two legal premises never before attempted in a tobacco lawsuit. One is the theory of "unjust enrichment," in which the state maintains it had to pay medical bills on behalf of indigents and eligible citizens whose health problems were directly caused by tobacco.
The second legal theory is based on the assertion that tobacco is a defective product. The defendants, the suit charges, knew tobacco to be defective, unreasonably dangerous and hazardous, and were "substantially certain" that tobacco would cause injury.
The suit, which cites just-released reports that tobacco companies concealed research that smoking caused cancer and other diseases, names America's largest tobacco marketers as defendants.
Clawson doesn't know how many millions of Utah taxpayer dollars have been spent on tobacco-related health care. But nationally, the total is estimated in the billions of dollars since the 1950s when scientific tests first confirmed the dangerous effects of tobacco.
An all-out assault on tobacco companies by all 50 states is quite possible, but Clawson said that states with smaller percentages of smokers, like Utah, may not choose to enter the fray early on. "It is an ambitious and expensive lawsuit," she said.
Clawson said the Utah attorney general's office will first discuss the legal ramifications with the Utah Health Department and the governor's office. But, "if it starts to move in a positive way for Mississippi, then we will move on it here. But I think we'll let the wind blow there first," she said.