As reported by the Associated Press, a proverbial “new study” shows that states are spending only a fraction of the millions extorted from tobacco companies in the landmark 1998 tobacco settlement on smoking cessation.
Among those states Kansas ranks near the bottom at 41. Missouri, which has the lowest cigarette taxes in the country, ranked 50th. The real scandal, though, is that these states participated in the unseemly money grab.
At the time of the settlement Missouri was controlled by Democrats. Squeezing money from big business and siphoning it off to trial lawyers defied no known party principles. The Republicans in Kansas had no such excuse.
In August 1996, Kansas became the 11th state to join the suit against six tobacco companies. The suit was supposed to recoup the presumed Medicaid cost of its dead and dying citizens and protect the young against the seductions of tobacco.
“Through a well-organized campaign of fraud, lies, intimidation and deception,” Republican Attorney General Carla Stovall insisted, “the tobacco industry has avoided legal responsibility for manufacturing and selling the most deadly and harmful products in consumer history while reaping billions of dollars in profits.”
What Stovall did not mention at time were the tidy sums the state had long been collecting from the tax on tobacco sales, more than $30 million in 1995 alone.
Nor, to be sure, did Stovall dwell on the ideological gymnastics she and her party would have to perform in order to justify the newly bloomed nannyism of Kansas Republicanism and the unprecedented pillaging of a legitimate, if morally dubious, industry.
At the time, conservative publications, local and national, routinely denounced the state settlements and the trial lawyers who brought them. On the talk radio front, the one unfiltered Republican medium, callers rejected the tobacco crackdown almost to a person. They resented the denial of personal responsibility, the usurpation of personal freedoms, the end run around legislation, the political extortion of a private industry, and the fattening of the state coffers.
What troubled conservatives all the more was the state’s implied ownership of the individual and its assumption of his debts and rewards. Members of the Kansas legislature spoke out against the settlement, but not enough of them and not loud enough.
Stovall was no conservative. Neither was then Governor Bill Graves. What made Stovall attractive to the media, Star columnist Steve Kraaske noted with approval, was that she was “anathema to the far right wing of the Republican Party.” For the media, that was enough.
But moderation is an elusive philosophy. Lacking fixed principles, its acolytes drift in a tautological flux: their chosen positions are often ones that moderates of either party agree on at a given point of time. In 1998, for no coherent reason, they came to the consensus that smoking was not just stupid, but evil, and the punishment of tobacco producers a public good.
In the pursuit of this good, a Republican AG ignored her party’s commitment to individual liberties and responsibilities. She also awarded a questionable no-bid contract to manage the suit to her former law firm Entz & Chanay of Topeka. “I don’t think the low bid is the way to choose your lawyers,” Stovall told a Legislative Budget Committee in the summer of 1997 a year after the decision was announced. In such a highly moral cause, who would dare question its most visible champion?
Now 20 years after the tobacco settlement, the same media that praised the suit are wondering why the money did not help its intended beneficiaries. They should have noticed that if anyone were guilty of “fraud, lies, intimidation and deception,” it was the states themselves.