SACRAMENTO — Setting the stage for California to join 32 states in suing tobacco companies, the Senate gave bipartisan approval Monday to a bill that Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren insists he needs to recover health care costs caused by smoking.
The bill, by Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno), is one of three major anti-tobacco proposals pending in the Legislature. All three bills would amend a 1987 state law that shields the tobacco industry from at least some lawsuits in California.
The state Department of Health has estimated that California taxpayers, through the Medi-Cal program for the poor, spent about $348 million in 1993-94, the last year for which figures are available, to treat illnesses directly related to smoking.
No official estimate has been made of local costs, but they are certain to drive the total even higher. Indirect costs such as burns suffered as a result of cigarette-caused fires or prenatal expenses related to smoking also have not been tallied.
Lungren insists that current law prevents him from filing suit on behalf of the state to recover those costs. His critics dispute that interpretation of current law.
Lawyers for the tobacco industry and various attorneys general have been negotiating for weeks to reach a settlement of suits seeking reimbursement for smoking-related health care costs. The settlement reportedly could exceed $300 billion. Those settlement talks have appeared stalled recently, although renewed talks between tobacco industry lawyers and state attorneys general are possible next week.
The Bustamante bill (AB 1603) must now return to the lower house for concurrence in minor Senate amendments.
The Senate previously passed a wider-ranging bill by Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco) that would allow individual Californians to sue tobacco manufacturers. A third bill by Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford) would enable victims of "secondhand smoke" to sue for damages. Both are now pending in the Assembly.
Bustamante said Monday that his bill may be given final passage by the Assembly this week and sent to Gov. Pete Wilson.
Wilson has said he favors suing tobacco manufacturers, but has not said which bill he favors.
"We are withholding any endorsement of these bills until they reach the governor's desk," said Wilson's spokesman Steve Tatum. "We're getting closer now."
Nor has Lungren been willing to say whether he would sue the tobacco industry even if the law is changed.
Robb Stutzman, Lungren's spokesman, expressed satisfaction that the anti-tobacco bills are moving forward, but refused to say whether the attorney general would sue if Bustamante's bill becomes law.
"He has never said he will sue," Stutzman said. "He has said it is most likely he will sue. I'm saying that again today."
Bustamante claims that his bill merely restates what the Legislature intended when it enacted the 1987 product immunity law, which also shielded makers of butter and castor oil from lawsuits. Bustamante's bill asserts that government agencies were never intended to be precluded from suing.
The Bustamante bill was approved by a 29-8 vote, two more than the two-thirds required for the bill to take effect immediately upon Wilson's signature.
Bustamante, who made a rare appearance in the Senate chamber to lobby for votes, was clearly pleased at the victory, but said it will be up to Wilson to choose which bills to sign or veto.
In the Senate debate, Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco) said state and local governments in California stand to recapture "hundreds of millions of dollars" if the Bustamante bill becomes law.
But Sen. Raymond N. Haynes (R-Riverside), the only opponent to speak against the bill, charged that it discriminated against individual citizens by giving only government the power to sue.
"We are giving more rights in this particular bill to government than we would to the individual," Haynes said. He said it would set a "very, very dangerous precedent."
Despite those statements, however, Haynes voted against the Kopp bill, which would have allowed both government agencies and individuals to sue.