August 25, 1999

August 25, 1999 | News Releases on Legal Issues

Feds Have No Right to Sue Tobacco Industry, Legal Expert Says

WASHINGTON, AUG. 25, 1999-Think the war between the government and the tobacco industry is over? Think again.

The states have had their go at the tobacco industry, extracting more than $200 billion in "settlement payments." Now it's the federal government's turn, or at least it would be except for one small problem: The Justice Department has no legal standing to sue tobacco companies, says a new Heritage Foundation analysis.

This is something the Justice Department itself admitted as recently as 1997, when the states tried to get the federal government to join their lawsuit, according to Heritage Senior Fellow in Legal Studies Todd Gaziano. What's different now is that President Clinton has directed the Justice Department to sue anyway, on the grounds that the tobacco industry owes the government for the cost of treating tobacco-related illnesses under Medicare and related programs.

Not only is that argument spurious-almost every expert concedes that smoking imposes no net costs on government-but the administration has offered no "theory of liability or damages" that would justify a lawsuit, says Gaziano, who served in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel under Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton.

"The planned federal suit against the tobacco industry is not really about recovering Medicare costs or vindicating legal rights," Gaziano says. "It is best described as an attempt to use the might of the federal government to force an unjust settlement with no basis in law."

"There is still a distinction between politics and law," he says. "The Clinton administration should stop undermining the rule of law with politically motivated lawsuits that attempt to achieve through litigation what it could not achieve through legislation."

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