One of my proudest moments, as both a lawyer and a human being, came in 1998, when a “dream team” of Florida’s best trial lawyers, handpicked by the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, which I was honored to be the youngest member of, successfully sued Big Tobacco and obtained a $13 billion settlement as well as massive advertising prohibitions and restrictions. The result was a societal sea change that benefited the people of Florida, and all across America, who had been so tragically damaged for so long by the effects of cigarettes and other tobacco products.
And one of my saddest (and angriest) moments happened much more recently. In a brazen act of disrespect to Chiles, an accomplished U.S. senator and two-term governor, our current governor, Ron DeSantis, terminated the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund and gutted some of the most useful anti-smoking programs that the settlement dollars have been funding for more than two decades.
In its place, DeSantis has created a vacuum of “truth” about nicotine addiction and the dangers of cigarette smoking, which will have devastating results, namely that millions of Floridians will fall victim to this dreaded addiction and die 10 to 12 years earlier than non-smokers.
More so, our governor is knowingly targeting the endowment in order to diminish the legacy of a true political pioneer who just so happens to be a Democrat.
Coincidence? Think again.
It was Chiles who envisioned the Big Tobacco suit in the first place. And the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund was named after him not because of Chiles’ desire to be celebrated and lauded, but because he stood tall in the face of a seemingly unstoppable opponent that cared little for the people its products harmed or killed.
The endowment was established in 1998 with $1.7 billion from the tobacco companies and was envisioned to distribute settlement funds to a variety of state agencies, which would then create and administer anti-smoking programs ranging from health and welfare programs aimed at children, human service initiatives directed at our elderly population and biomedical research.
Florida Republicans have chipped away at the endowment for years, transferring hundreds of millions to cover projected shortfalls. Sometimes, the Legislature paid the money back. Other times it did not.
Now, DeSantis has delivered a final coup de grace, signing a bill that permanently terminates the fund and transfers these huge sums of money to the general fund.
If you fear that Florida’s extremely valuable and important anti-smoking and related health and education programs are in danger of fading away, you are right.
If you think DeSantis may now use the millions of dollars that have so successfully funded those programs for his own pet projects, you are right again.
If tobacco-related health and education programs are left unfunded or under-funded, who will pick up the slack? The same people who are always left with the check: Taxpayers like you.
You could use a good laugh
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And when it comes to such costs, the numbers are very large. Think billions, not millions.
Instead of admitting the truth, DeSantis’ fellow Republicans in the Legislature say exactly the opposite — that doing away with the endowment is actually a good thing for the anti-smoking programs it funded.
“The more secure we can make that money, the better,” said Republican Rep. Jay Trumbull. “We are not taking away the programs. Most of those programs are paid for out of the Tobacco Settlement Trust Fund. So, all those medical programs, those will all be the same.”
That’s not true. These programs will no longer be earmarked as a priority, and are now living on borrowed time.
Sadly, the impact of this decision won’t be known for decades, long after I’m dead and gone and hopefully well past the point anyone remembers DeSantis’ name.
What will matter, and why you should care, is what hurts the most.
By then, we will have lost billions in the fight to educate our youth and curb tobacco-related illnesses, paid billions in medical costs and allowed the cigarette cartel to once again escape responsibility, reap enormous profits and have Florida’s taxpayers pick up the tab. Tragically, we also will have buried millions of loved ones far too soon.
Like many savvy politicians before him, DeSantis carefully cloaks his motives so as to appear ever-vigilant on behalf of his constituents.
The truth is that state leaders like DeSantis don’t deserve the honor of walking in Lawton Chiles’ shoes, and his disrespect demonstrates both his arrogance and lack of good judgment.
Tampa trial attorney Steve Yerrid was a member of Florida’s legal “dream team” that helped the state become the first to successfully sue Big Tobacco. He continues to champion anti-smoking efforts.