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Banzhaf: Engle Case Puts Big Tobacco 'Very Much on the Ropes'

Aired May 22, 2000 - 2:04 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Smokers in many other countries apparently also are kicking the habit. "World Watch" reports smoking down significantly in places such as France, China and Japan, and that consumption worldwide has declined about 2 percent. But it also found smoking among teenagers and women increasing.

With us from Washington to share his perspective on these matters, anti-smoking advocate John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health.

First the Engle case: It's a risk for the industry, they say. How big a risk?

JOHN BANZHAF, ACTION ON SMOKING AND HEALTH: Well, it's a risk for the industry. Most analysts are looking for a verdict somewhere between $50 billion and $150 billion. Bear in mind, also, though, that each of those individual 500,000 cases still could be tried, and you're talking there potential damages in the billions -- in the trillions, trillions.

WATERS: So tobacco's on the ropes, wouldn't you say?

BANZHAF: Tobacco is very much on the ropes. This is a jury which found against them on every single count. It is a judge who has ruled against them on virtually every argument they've made, and I think it's a long time coming. This is an industry, bear in mind, which cost the American public, you and me, over $130 billion each and every year, largely paid by nonsmokers in the form of higher taxes and so on. They recently made a $250 billion settlement, but they're doing awfully well and they're still making a lot of money.

WATERS: Yes, that was back in November of '98 when the tobacco industry agreed to a $250-billion payment to the 50 states to take care of those Medicare costs, including the smoking-related illnesses. They thought at that time, then, that exporting their product would pay the big dividend. Is that the case for them?

BANZHAF: Well, actually, no, because one of the figures in the report, that U.S. exports are down 25 percent, really reflects more of the fact that many of our American countries are now manufacturing their cigarettes abroad.

Actually, the tobacco companies in that $250 billion settlement got a great lot of deal. They got a lot of immunity, they settled their cases for pennies on the dollar, and, ironically, they've now put the states on their side. Florida and four other states, fearful of losing some of the money from that settlement they're now entitled to get, are siding with the tobacco industry. They've made it much easier, for example, for the industry to appeal any verdict which comes out of Florida. So, in effect, many of these states are now addicted to tobacco -- at least to tobacco money.

WATERS: I'm sure it must bother you that teen-age and female smoking is up. There's a lot more to be done, wouldn't you say?

BANZHAF: Well, Lou, That's exactly the problem. It's like we just contained one forest fire, we're looking over the hill and we see a bigger one. Yes, per capita consumption in the U.S. is now down, but we're looking at teenage smoking rates which are about 30 percent higher than adult rates right now. So looking ahead five, 10, 15, 20 years, we're talking about a much bigger epidemic than we've ever had in the U.S. before.

The U.N. is predicting that by the year 2020 -- not too many years from now -- 10 million people will die every year of tobacco, far more than AIDS. AIDS has been declared a terrorist threat. Here we can't even get Congress to either ban smoking in the workplace or get the FDA to regulate tobacco.

WATERS: Thailand thinks it may have the answer for young adolescent males who think they are immortal, and the health warnings haven't had much consequence in their lives. Their cigarettes packed in Thailand are carrying this warning: Cigarette smoking causes sexual impotence. Does that warning have any legs?

BANZHAF: It certainly does seem to. In California, they've got a very interesting ad. I'll try to depict it a little bit. A man's cigarette is like this, he's talking to a women, and the cigarette then starts drooping like that, and she walks away. We think a lot of young people aren't really concerned about dying of lung cancer, stroke, heart attack, and so on, at age 60. They may be more concerned about their impotence right now. Similarly, young women may be more concerned about the effect of smoking on their sexual activities as well as on their unborn or still to be born children.

WATERS: Maybe we're on to something.

John Banzhaf, thanks so much. We'll talk again.

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