WAR AND PEACE ON THE TOBACCO FRONT
Big Tobacco at the Bar of Justice
By Peter Pringle
Henry Holt 352pp $27.50
THE PEOPLE VS. BIG TOBACCO
How the States Took On the Cigarette Giants
By Carrick Mollenkamp, Adam Levy, Joseph Menn, and Jeffrey Rothfeder
Bloomberg Press 334pp $23.95
Go to any bookstore, and you'll find shelves groaning with military histories. Readers love tales of armed conflict, with generals marshaling their forces, lives in the balance, and secret dispatches, spies, and high technology all enlisted in the battle. The tobacco wars are no exception: In recent times, they have inspired three major books, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the industry. But last summer's landmark $368 billion legal settlement with Big Tobacco marked a historic turning point, and it demanded an update from the front.
Two new dispatches live up to the tradition of fine reporting about one of the great public-health battles of our time. Cornered, by British journalist Peter Pringle, is a deftly written, comprehensive account of all the forces that brought tobacco to the negotiating table. The People vs. Big Tobacco, by a team of reporters from financial-news service Bloomberg News, focuses tightly on the negotiations leading to the landmark deal. It is the first account to offer much real insight into how the tobacco executives were driven by self-preservation to end decades of denial and obfuscation and begin to account for their misdeeds.
Both books treat readers to all the ingredients that make the tobacco wars gripping. The generals are fascinating: The antitobacco legal forces include the politically ambitious Mississippi attorney general, Michael Moore; the flamboyant New Orleans prankster, Wendell Gauthier; and the courtroom magician, Ronald L. Motley. The internal documents that reveal Big Tobacco's conspiracy against public health resemble a high command's blueprint for an assault. The efforts of Moore and determined Pascagoula (Miss.) lawyer Richard F. Scruggs represent some of the most dogged and creative shuttle diplomacy in recent litigation.
Almost from the moment Moore announced the settlement at a packed Washington press conference last June, the agreement has been under fierce attack. Health groups and antitobacco lawmakers termed it a sellout, and these groups were soon seconded by authorities such as former Food & Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler and former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. The White House, which played a key role in the negotiations, treated the deal as if it were an illegitimate child.
The thrust of the criticisms is on target. For decades, the tobacco industry conducted a covert campaign to conceal that its products kill people. Its culpability should not be easily dismissed, and before passing any of the settlement into law, Congress must consider the sections of the agreement that restrict Big Tobacco's exposure to punitive damages, protect it from class actions, and limit awards to individual plaintiffs. These books bring value to the debate by showing how the parties to the negotiations were overcome by deal fever. They were transfixed by the notion that this was a one-shot chance for a historic settlement that could improve public health and, not incidentally, bring them fame, power, and untold riches. At one point, the plaintiffs' lawyers speculated privately that their cut of the deal could well approach $40 billion.
Cornered came about almost by accident. Assigned to the U.S. to cover tobacco for The Independent of London, Pringle was on the beat during the appearance of the first industry documents: papers purloined by Merrell Williams, who had worked as a paralegal for a Louisville law firm representing Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., and turned over to Moore and Scruggs. During the next three years, as the tobacco wars raged around the country, Pringle interviewed all the major players on the antitobacco side.
Pringle's particular strength is his use of detail and shrewd character judgments to humanize the story. He shows how the moral outrage and independence of Minnesota's attorney general, Hubert H. Humphrey III, buttressed by plaintiff's lawyer Mike Ciresi's loathing for many of his colleagues, left Minnesota as a key holdout from the talks. The roguish and flamboyant lawyers led by Gauthier come across as unorthodox but shrewd maneuverers who keep an eye on the pot of gold at the end of the settlement.
Pringle's approach has its limits. In trying to cover all theaters of the tobacco war, he gets distracted from the most important front: the negotiations led by Moore and Scruggs that yielded the settlement. He focuses too much on Gauthier and his group, and he fails to get much beyond the oft-told highlights of the drive by Scruggs and Moore to cut a deal. His account of the parley in which RJR Nabisco Inc. Chairman Steven Goldstone and Philip Morris Cos. Chairman Geoffrey Bible met face-to-face with their opponents would be entirely lacking in drama if not for the previously unreported tidbit that Scruggs at first opposed meeting with the two tobacco CEOs. Most earlier reports have indicated that Scruggs and Moore demanded the Apr. 3, 1997, powwow as evidence that the industry was serious about making a settlement.
The People vs. Big Tobacco, by contrast, focuses on events leading up to the settlement. Almost all of the book's research and writing was done by three reporters--Carrick Mollenkamp, Adam Levy, and Joseph Menn--while Bloomberg News National Editor Jeffrey Rothfeder played the role of a bylined editor. It is the first major title to be published by Bloomberg Press, which hopes to recycle its reporters' deadline-driven, wire-service work into books. The result is a mixture of authoritative detail and a sometimes disquieting lack of perspective. The committee of authors never quite develops a narrative voice with which to bring perspective and insight to the reader.
Still, with the tobacco wars as its subject, the just-the-facts approach certainly provides a fascinating read. About one-third of the way into the book, following some perfunctory and poorly organized background, the narrative begins to sizzle. When reporter Mollenkamp follows up on a tip, driving 400 miles to meet with a source, he lands the February, 1997, scoop that the tobacco talks have been reborn after six months of relative quiet. From that point on, The People vs. Big Tobacco provides an exciting, you-are-there narrative of the horse-trading that led to the settlement.
The book's biggest single contribution is its insight into how the companies moved toward settlement. Having a major impact were two new leaders, Goldstone and Bible, who had taken charge of Big Tobacco's case not long after the disastrous April, 1994, testimony in which tobacco CEOs disclaimed knowledge about the health effects and addictiveness of smoking. Four years later, Big Tobacco has revealed almost nothing of its agenda in the talks or made a defense of the deal that offers the industry a chance for survival if passed intact. This book, at least, gives some sense of the companies' motivation and internal debates.
Neither of the books plumbs the settlement's strengths and weaknesses or foreshadows its political aftermath. Because the settlement would affect the rights of people to recover damages from Big Tobacco, Congress must weigh in. In the next few weeks, it is expected to take up the question of granting the industry some form of limited immunity from lawsuits stemming from its past conduct, even as trials in Minnesota, Indiana, and other states may be uncovering news of further misdeeds. The lawmaking and lawsuits will set the stage for a political free-for-all with importance for the industry's future and the nation's health. And, no doubt, they will become the subject for the next report from the front.BY DAVID GREISING