ANNAPOLIS – A bill that would strengthen the state’s chances in its lawsuit against the tobacco industry was attacked Tuesday by business leaders who said it would target “deep-pocket” companies.
The bill is backed by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, who insists it will apply only to the state’s multibillion-dollar case against the tobacco industry for injuries caused by its product.
A Baltimore Circuit Court judge recently threw out nine counts of the state’s 13-count tobacco suit, eliminating more than $10 billion of its original $13 billion claim in the process.
The bill would let Curran circumvent that ruling by letting the state — not the Medicaid system that paid the bills of the injured smokers — pursue damages from tobacco.
It would also let Curran use statistical analysis to prove damages, instead of having to bring each patient in to court to testify.
The law would only apply to the pending tobacco case, Curran said, because no other consumer product causes injury and death when used as directed.
But opponents called it a “shameful piece of legislation” that would open a Pandora’s box.
J. William Pitcher, a lobbyist for the Tobacco Institute as well as several other Maryland business groups, said gun manufacturers, distillers and even fast-food chains would be subject to direct medical suits under Curran’s proposal.
“McDonalds is next,” he told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Tuesday.
Other opponents accused Curran of trying to change the rules in the middle of the game to suit himself.
“This is tobacco McCarthyism,” said Bruce C. Bereano of the Maryland Association of Candy and Tobacco Wholesalers.
“The legislature, respectfully, is being tested in terms of doing what is right and what is politically expedient. It is so egregious to take a pending case and change the rules,” said Bereano.
Bereano said the bill ignores a basic tenet of Maryland tort law — that if someone contributes to their injuries, they are responsible and cannot collect damages.
But Curran introduced Nancy Donahue, an ex-smoker who blames her chronic respiratory problems on a 28-year cigarette habit that started when she was 12. Holding up the inhalers and drugs she now must use, she pleaded with the committee to pass the bill.
“It is an addiction. And the day will come when I’m not going to take another breath,” said Donahue, 57, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Cassandra B. Yutzy, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association of Maryland, said this is about money — the tobacco industry has it and the people its product hurts do not.
But Pitcher said Curran’s office is clouding the issue with emotion.
“They’re trying to use the emotions of tobacco, when nothing has been proven in court yet, to change the rules for a pending case,” Pitcher said.
An identical House version of the bill is scheduled to be heard Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee.