Opening a major line of attack in the legal battle against the tobacco industry, Los Angeles County supervisors agreed Tuesday to file a lawsuit seeking huge damages to recover the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses in the nation's most populous county.
Less than a week after San Francisco became the nation's first municipality to sue the tobacco industry, the supervisors voted 4 to 1 to join the San Francisco case or have a Los Angeles law firm file a separate lawsuit on the county's behalf against six tobacco companies and two industry trade associations.
With more than 9.2 million residents, Los Angeles County will become the third largest plaintiff after the states of Texas and Florida in a wave of litigation seeking damages from the tobacco industry for the health impacts associated with smoking.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who pressed for the lawsuit, said the county, if successful in court, has an opportunity to recover hundreds of millions of dollars in health care costs for smoking-related illnesses.
"We believe . . . that the tobacco industry has collaborated to sell a product which is addictive and which has caused grave harm to many of our citizens and residents and have cost us great expense in this county," Yaroslavsky said.
Health Services Director Mark Finucane told the supervisors that the county, which has a huge immigrant population that has been targeted by the industry's marketing efforts, is bearing a heavy financial burden for treating smoking-related diseases, including cancer and respiratory illness.
Based on a study done at UC San Francisco two years ago, Finucane said smoking-related illness costs the county $1.2 billion a year, of which $372 million is borne by the financially troubled public health system.
Yaroslavsky, a self-described former two-pack-a-day cigarette smoker, said the county's case, like those of San Francisco and nine states, will accuse the tobacco industry of conspiracy "to hook many of our citizens onto tobacco and get them addicted."
Yaroslavsky said the industry targets "many of the most vulnerable populations, they target the poor, they target the immigrants, they target the teenagers" who seek medical care in county hospitals and clinics.
"I think it's a great opportunity to go after them," Finucane told the supervisors.
Yaroslavsky acknowledged that it will be a long, hard battle by private law firms that tackle the tobacco industry on a contingency basis. "If we are successful, we will save lives," he said.
Stanford University law professor Robert Rabin, an expert on tobacco litigation, said the Los Angeles County action "opens up another layer of the litigation. . . . The underlying theory . . . would be the same as that of the states: We're out of pocket because of expenditures the tobacco industry have imposed on us because their deceptive practices caused people to get hooked on cigarettes."
But foreshadowing the courtroom clash to come, Philip Morris U.S.A. issued a statement, saying that "the threatened lawsuit by the county of Los Angeles would seek to hold an entire industry liable merely from the sale of a legal product to adults."
"Such a lawsuit would be without any legal merit and would ultimately cost the taxpayers of Los Angeles millions of dollars, irrespective of promises by politicians that the county's litigation costs would be paid entirely by plaintiffs' lawyers," the company said.
R.J. Reynolds spokeswoman Peggy Carter said she was not surprised by Tuesday's action. "We recognize that we are the least popular industry on the block these days," she said. "This is a politically safe thing to do."
However, Carter added: "They don't have a basis in fact and they don't have a basis in law for the suit. When you're going to sue for damages, you have to show an economic loss."
In addition to Yaroslavsky, Supervisors Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Gloria Molina and Deane Dana joined in authorizing the county counsel to proceed with the case.
Dana spoke of his father dying at an early age because he smoked. Burke said the county must be at the forefront of the anti-smoking fight.
But Board Chairman Mike Antonovich objected to bringing the lawsuit, saying cigarettes are a legal product that individuals choose to buy. He called the efforts of law firms to take on the industry "a legal Lotto game," and said he opposed "clogging the courts with lawsuits."
San Francisco City Atty. Louise Renne praised the action. "The more local governments that are involved in this the better," Renne said.
Elsewhere, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to join San Francisco's lawsuit. The case filed last week in federal court alleges that the tobacco companies engaged in racketeering and a conspiracy to manipulate nicotine levels and falsely deny that cigarettes are addictive.
The San Francisco lawsuit, like those filed by the states, seeks access to tobacco company research into the health effects of smoking and nicotine levels in its products.
Yaroslavsky said he has consulted with principals in Greene, Broillet, Taylor & Wheeler, a Santa Monica firm that has won numerous multimillion-dollar verdicts in complex personal injury and medical malpractice cases.
"We're to speak with the county counsel about our retention on a contingency basis," attorney Browne Greene said. "This is going to be a war. Suing big tobacco isn't a walk through the tulips, but those are the kinds of cases we do."