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Gray Davis Urges Lungren to Join Tobacco Lawsuits

September 12, 1996|MYRON LEVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Turning up the pressure on California Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren to join the legal onslaught against tobacco, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis has sent a letter urging Lungren to follow the lead of 16 other states by suing tobacco firms to recover tax funds used to treat smoking-related ailments.

With Davis, a Democrat, and Lungren, a Republican, considered possible gubernatorial opponents in 1998, the appeal to Lungren had clear political overtones.

But it also reflected his estrangement from a growing movement in California--the only state in which city and county legal officers have taken on the industry themselves.

Just last week, 10 more California counties and the city of San Jose joined San Francisco and Los Angeles County in filing suit to recoup local tax expenditures for care of indigents sickened by smoking.

In a two-page letter to Lungren dated Tuesday, Davis said that although the county lawsuits could succeed in recovering "costs incurred by the counties themselves," they would not recoup "the state's Medi-Cal share, which is twice as large."

"The state, through its attorney general, has a fiduciary obligation to do everything within its power to ensure that the taxpayers are made whole for the enormous publicly funded costs involved in tobacco-caused diseases and deaths," Davis wrote.

But Lungren called the appeal politically motivated and said he has no immediate plans to bring suit against the industry.

"We've looked at this, and we'll continue to look at this, but I don't play political games with this issue and I never have," Lungren said in a phone interview.

In a jab at the Democrats, Lungren noted that tort reform legislation shepherded by former Democratic House Speaker Willie Brown in 1987 made tobacco companies immune to lawsuits under state product liability laws--complicating prospects of defeating the industry in court.

But Davis and other critics said the industry's exemption from product liability claims has not stopped the counties from proceeding on other grounds.

Their lawsuits claim the tobacco companies fraudulently concealed the hazards of their products, thereby engaging in an unfair business practice under the state Business and Professions Code.

"I can't believe that he [Lungren] hasn't done anything," said Mark P. Robinson Jr., a private lawyer representing Los Angeles County in its anti-tobacco suit. "Clearly we have" found a way around the product law exemption, he said.

Lungren said his stand should not be misunderstood as support for tobacco.

"I hate smoking," Lungren said, adding that he believes in higher cigarette taxes to pay for health care and strong enforcement of laws barring tobacco sales to underage youths.

But he said that instead of litigation, Congress should impose "some sort of global settlement" that would give tobacco companies immunity from lawsuits in exchange for money and the industry making public all its scientific data on cigarettes and smoking.

During the past two weeks, attorneys general with suits against the industry have discussed a possible settlement involving payment by the industry of more than $100 billion over 15 years. But some tobacco officials and anti-smoking leaders have attacked the proposal, and it is considered dead for this session of Congress.

New Jersey on Tuesday became the 16th state to file suit against the industry. The tobacco companies have said the lawsuits have no merit.

Although Democrats generally have been most critical of the industry, the legal assault increasingly has taken on a bipartisan tone. A majority of the states that have sued the cigarette makers have Republican governors and Democratic attorneys general. But in three of the states--Kansas, Arizona and New Jersey--the top legal officer is a Republican.

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