Attorneys representing the nation's tobacco industry came out swinging against Washington state, which became the ninth state Wednesday to sue cigarette makers for the medical costs associated with smoking.
The next step, the lawyers predicted, will be government suits against makers of high-fat foods, distillers of liquor and producers of other potentially unhealthful products."Alcohol producers are terrified of this," said Keith A. Teel, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represents a number of cigarette manufacturers and the industry-sponsored Tobacco Institute.
Teel and Michael York, another Washington, D.C., attorney who represents Philip Morris, said the claim against tobacco makers is based on "contorted" reasoning that sets a dangerous precedent if government succeeds in recouping health costs associated with an approved product.
"This lawsuit really is an abuse of the system," Teel said.
He said there was no evidence to support the claim that smokers produce higher health-care costs. In any case, Teel said, the state is a willing "partner" in the sale of tobacco and "profits handsomely" by taxing it.
Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire held a news conference Wednesday at the Virginia Mason Medical Center here to formally announce the lawsuit.
She used the event to criticize the argument that tobacco is like other products that can have unhealthful effects.
"I think the tobacco industry is unique," Gregoire said.
She said tobacco is the only commercial product that routinely kills people when used as recommended by the manfacturer. In addition, Gregoire alleged, the industry has conspired to deceive the public and hide information on the toxicity of its product.
"I wouldn't have filed this lawsuit if I didn't think we could win," she said.
Gregoire recruited three of the state's top trial lawyers - Paul Luvera, Steve Berman and Joel Cunningham - to help argue the state's case. They'll be paid only if the state wins.
The state is likely to claim past health-care costs of more than a billion dollars, Gregoire said. The state spends an estimated $700 million annually on health care attributed to smoking-related illnesses.
Teel and the other attorneys disputed that figure as statistical sleight-of-hand and argued that smokers may save the health-care system money.