A circuit judge in Palm Beach County has appropriately upheld one of the key legacies of Florida’s landmark tobacco lawsuit. The ruling last month forces R.J. Reynolds to continue paying the state millions in settlement money even after selling off several tobacco brands. It’s the right outcome that ensures cigarette makers continue to be held accountable for harming public health.
The case dates to 1995, when under then-Gov. Lawton Chiles Florida sued the nation’s major tobacco companies for marketing and selling cigarettes to children and for lying about the health effects of smoking. Rather than go through a potentially disastrous trial, the companies agreed to pay more than $11 billion and undertake numerous public health initiatives. Those efforts included removing cigarette billboards, financing antismoking campaigns and removing cigarette vending machines from places where teenagers could get to them.
The settlement, as well as others around the country, brought an end to decades of deceptive sales and marketing that specifically targeted kids. Smoking rates among teens are on the decline due largely to the industry being forced to halt its nefarious practices. But smoking among young people remains a key public health concern. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 6 million Americans under 18 will eventually die from a smoking-related illness.
So Attorney General Pam Bondi did the right thing in January 2017 when she took the tobacco companies back to court. After selling off some of its brands, including Winston, Kool and Salem cigarettes, R.J. Reynolds had ceased making payments based on the sales of those brands. Bondi argued the state was owed more than $45 million and would lose $30 million a year in perpetuity.
"The sale of major, pre-existing tobacco brands to another company for billions of dollars does not cause the payment obligations to vanish like a puff of smoke," Bondi said at the time.
That’s exactly right, and Palm Beach Circuit Judge Jeffrey Dana Gillen agreed. The case was complex, but Gillen’s ruling was straightforward: "Reynolds is still obligated to make the payments pursuant to the Florida Agreement."
Millions of Floridians were made sick — many fatally — by the effects of cigarette smoking over decades. This was due in no small part to manufacturers claiming for years that their addictive products were harmless. Helping people stop smoking and keeping young people from starting remain high public health priorities, and it’s entirely appropriate that tobacco companies should pay for those efforts for years to come. The judge’s ruling means the money the tobacco company agreed to pay under that landmark settlement with the state more than two decades ago should continue to flow as originally intended. That is a victory for the public health, and Bondi deserves credit for demanding that Florida gets the millions it is entitled to receive.