The Minnesota tobacco legislation of the 1990s changed the way America approaches the leading preventable cause of death and disease in the United States.
Cigarette manufacturers had been the subject of 300 lawsuits by smokers over the course of 40 years. Tobacco manufacturers had won every case, and had never paid a penny in settlement or awards to victims. In August 1994, the Minnesota Attorney General, Hubert H. “Skip” Humphrey, teamed up with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and the law firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, to defy the odds and declare war on the tobacco epidemic. Their unprecedented suit alleged a 50-year conspiracy to defraud America about the hazards of smoking, to stifle development of safer cigarettes, and to target children as new customers.
The largest case in Minnesota history, the lawsuit eventually involved hundreds of legal motions and a dozen appeals, including two to the Supreme Court of the United States, as Minnesota focused its efforts on battling its way into the tobacco industry’s internal document vaults, which had never seen the light of day. After years of effort, a 15-week trial and testimony by world-leading experts and tobacco CEOs, the case resulted in a massive settlement that still stands as the fourth largest legal settlement in all of history, anywhere. The tobacco giants were ordered to stop targeting kids, bring down all tobacco billboards, end the branded merchandise they had showered on children, end paid product placement in movies, and more. The State of Minnesota would receive more than $6 billion over the first 25 years and about $200 million annually thereafter, forever. $200 million were set aside for a public health foundation, and Blue Cross would dedicate its recovery to long-term health improvement for the entire state. Perhaps most importantly, 35 million pages of long-secret documents were opened for public scrutiny. They have already resulted in 450 published scientific articles and government reports, and their revelations about political trickery have altered the course of national debates from Egypt to Argentina.
Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop called it one of the greatest public health achievement of the 20th century. The World Health Organization gave Attorney General Humphrey its first Tobacco Free World Award, and the attorneys were named U.S. Trial Attorneys of the Year. The disclosures unleashed by the Minnesota documents lit a fire of indignation that helped drive adoption of the world’s first public health treaty, the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The treaty has been ratified by 140 nations representing three-quarters of the world’s population, and is transforming the way the world deals with the epidemic of tobacco use that is presently on course to claim an unthinkable 100 million lives by the end of this century.
~Doug Blanke, St. Paul, MN