Commentary

Federal Tobacco Policy: Return to Reason?

If there was any doubt whether President Bush should squander tax dollars on the Justice Department’s tobacco lawsuit, it was dispelled by the May 23 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. A unanimous court–-joining seven other appellate courts that have considered these issues-–threw out tort and racketeering (RICO) claims by foreign governments and union health funds against cigarette makers. In the similar Justice Department suit, federal judge Gladys Kessler had dismissed all allegations except RICO. Now that the higher court has spoken, she’ll reject the rest of Justice’s case.

Indeed, the case is baseless. Prosecutors and FBI agents conducted a five-year, multimillion-dollar inquiry, dissecting documents and listening to whistle-blowers and company scientists. The outcome: not one indictment of a tobacco company or executive. Still, Attorney General Janet Reno contrived multibillion- dollar civil RICO charges against the industry–-the same charges for which grand juries could not find probable cause. It’s politics and money, not law, that’s driving this litigation.

Naturally, the entire scheme is cynically promoted as a way to protect our health. Applying that same rationale, the World Health Organization (WHO) has called for myriad tobacco restrictions that would undermine the sovereignty of its member states and impact U.S. domestic priorities, not only in the health arena, but also in tax, employment, agriculture, trade and legal policy. Never mind that cigarette makers and tobacco growers were effectively excluded from the negotiations. Never mind that the WHO has a history of disseminating junk science on secondhand smoke. And never mind that regulation of commerce in a perfectly legal product would be controlled by an arm of the United Nations-–the same body that considers the United States unfit to serve on its Human Rights Commission with the likes of Sudan, China and Libya.

The WHO would ban public smoking and “coordinate taxes for tobacco products at internationally determined minimum tax rates.” If that didn’t drive consumers to the black market, the WHO would ratchet up the price another few notches by employing bizarre tort theories-–crafted by U.S. trial lawyers-–that would impose retroactive liability, regardless of fault, on a single unpopular industry. That’s what we can expect from global governance-–repetition on a worldwide scale of contemptible government- sponsored litigation designed to extort billions of dollars from manufacturers of a product with known risks that consumers elect to purchase.

Bravo if President Bush prefers the rule of law. He needs to resist blandishments from international bureaucrats duped by billionaire trial lawyers, who would like nothing more than to recycle a fat part of their legal fees to his political opponents.

Robert A. Levy is senior fellow in constitutional studies.