Smokers file lawsuit against states over tobacco settlement

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by Deborah Feyerick

January 28, 2000

NEW YORK — Smokers in eight states filed class-action lawsuits this week to obtain a share of the multibillion-dollar settlement that the states won from tobacco companies.

Larry Tyler is one of the plaintiffs.

For more than 40 years, Tyler smoked several packs of cigarettes a day.

Once 6 foot 3 inches tall and 225 pounds, Tyler is now a double amputee, suffering from emphysema and receiving help from Medicaid.

When Vermont and other states sued the tobacco companies to recoup the costs of smoking -- including Medicaid expenses -- Tyler believed he would be personally compensated.

But like tens of thousands of other Medicaid patients, Tyler hasn't seen a single dime of the $206 billion tobacco settlement, so he's suing his home state of Vermont.

"They climbed on their backs and did a great job of climbing on their backs by getting an enormous amount of money properly from the tobacco industry, and then they turned their own backs on these poorest of the poor," said attorney Richard Bieder.

Bieder and Antonio Ponvert helped file lawsuits in eight states this week, including Vermont.

Attorneys are going state by state suing officials to comply with the 1965 Medicaid Act. A provision of that act says that once state and federal governments collect what is owed them, the rest goes to the injured parties.

"Their rights have been utterly ignored. The federal legislation, the Medicaid Act, has been utterly ignored," argued Ponvert.

But Vermont's chief attorney said that recouping Medicaid costs was only part of the suit against big tobacco. The settlement also covered violations of things like the consumer fraud act.

"We agreed to settle all of the state's claims," explained Vermont State Attorney William Sorrell.

Each state decides how to spend its money from the tobacco settlement.

Pennsylvania proposed all go to health care. But other states are using the money for general costs -- like roads, or education.

Some anti-smoking advocates argue that states deserve the money -- and individuals should file their own suits.

"Don't sue the states -- sue the tobacco cartel -- they're the ones who made you sick," said Joe Cherner of Smokefree Educational Services.

But for Larry Tyler, it's not a question of who made him sick. It's a question of how he can improve the quality of the life he now has.