Capitol View

By Richard Borreca

Wednesday, February 5, 1997


Hawaii’s suit against
tobacco companies

SIR Walter Raleigh should have known he was in deep kim chee when he introduced tobacco to England and King James I called smoking "a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain (and) dangerous to the lungs."

The king finally got Sir Walter on treason charges, but tobacco has remained free.

Tobacco lobbyists, however, should know that the game is almost over, when popular novelist John Grissom in his best-seller "Runaway Jury" can detail the downright evilly addictive nature of tobacco.

Now Hawaii has joined with 19 other states in filing lawsuits to get back some of the millions spent on those suffering from tobacco-caused diseases.

Cayetano and Attorney General Margery Bronster announced the lawsuit this week.

The state claims the tobacco companies knew smoking was dangerous, knew it was addictive and sold it anyway.

It is probably the right thing to do, it definitely is politically popular, but some of the state attorney general's previous investigations haven't exactly been "Hawaii Five-O" material.

Back in 1993, for instance, the state took official notice of the price of cereal and was not amused.

Breakfast cereal that cost $5 in California was costing $7 in Hawaii. The state wanted to know if anyone was engaging in illegal practices such as price fixing. The state found no conspiracies.

Earlier the state sleuths went after gasoline prices in Hawaii. Twice.

First, a 1990 report said a lack of competition was one of many reasons for Hawaii high gas prices. Four years later the state said it couldn't prove the oil companies were earning excessive profits.

The state, however, has had more luck with its long-running investigation into manufacturers who sold asbestos-containing materials to the state.

Lawsuits were filed in 1993 by the AG's asbestos litigation unit and already $3.3 million has been recovered.

The tobacco suit is going to be a lot rougher.

Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery, an elected Republican, who remembers losing relatives to tobacco-related diseases, last month decided not to join other states in the legal fight.

The lawsuit would be the most expensive in Ohio's history. She didn't want to turn the case over to private lawyers, although 18 states, including Hawaii, have done that.

She reasons it shouldn't be handled by a private lawyer "potentially motivated more by profit than by public policy."

AFTER checking with other states that have gone to court, Montgomery said no matter who handles the case, dozens of state workers inevitably are pressed into service, diverting attention from other needed legal issues.

Also, she added, if the suit is ultimately won by the states that sued, it would most likely result in awards for all 50 states.

Challenges to the state's sovereignty, growing questions about who actually owns the land in Hawaii and the simple administration of a state legal system make for an attorney general with a full plate.

How Bronster and Cayetano manage both the lawsuit and the inevitable critics will be a new challenge for the state.



Richard Borreca reports on Hawaii's politics every Wednesday.
He can be reached by e-mail at rborreca@pixi.com



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