Bliley Releases Secret Tobacco Documents
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Dec. 18) -- House Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas Bliley (R-Va.) this morning released a cache of 864 previously secret tobacco company documents on his committee's Web site. The tobacco companies turned the documents over to Bliley after he subpoenaed them.
The same documents are the subject of a bitter court fight in Minnesota, where Skip Humphrey, the state's attorney general, and its Blue Cross-Blue Shield organization have been fighting to have access to them as part of a lawsuit to recover costs of smoking-related illnesses.
Documents from all the companies had been in the files of Liggett & Myers, the tobacco firm that broke ranks with the industry by settling many claims and waiving its attorney-client privileges to allow disclosure.
Bliley's move preempts Minnesota Judge Kenneth J. Fitzpatrick, who on Tuesday said the documents reflect a "clear conspiracy of silence and suppression of scientific research" and gave tobacco companies five days to release them.
A 1968 document from Brown & Williamson's general counsel discussed strategy to cloud the issue of cancer research. It said, "The study of the disease keeps constantly alive the argument that ... it is scientifically inappropriate to devote the major effort to tobacco."
Another document: A 1967 letter between tobacco lawyers proposes using a doctor to campaign for "creation of image of smoking as a "right" for many people, as a "natural" act for man, as a scientifically approved "diversion" to avoid disease-causing stress."
Tobacco companies for years have claimed that such documents are protected by attorney-client privilege, while their critics say the companies have abused the privilege.
The expert appointed by Fitzpatrick to examine the hundreds of thousands of documents in dispute identified more than 800 of them as exempt from attorney-client privilege because they presented evidence of a crime or fraud.
Bliley then subpoenaed that smaller group of documents in early December, and the tobacco companies promptly turned them over.
Subpoenaing and disclosing sensitive tobacco documents is a bit of a new role for Bliley, an ardent defender of the industry sometimes known as "The Congressman from Philip Morris," as the tobacco giant's headquarters sit in his Richmond district.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg said of the documents, "It shows once again that these companies were conspiring to keep the public from knowing the truth. And it's shocking information, and this is only the beginning," said the New Jersey Democrat.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a leading tobacco critic, says these disclosures could make lawmakers more wary as they consider the proposed $368 billion national settlement. "It complicates the question of giving the tobacco companies immunity for their past misconduct," he says. "I think it is going to deepen a lot of the concerns that members of Congress have about that kind of issue."
In response to the disclosed documents, the tobacco industry said: "Those who believe 20- or 40-year-old documents merit continuation of legal and regulatory hostilities in lieu of a national legislative solution fail to see what is at stake."
The industry also reiterated its newfound desire for Congress to approve a legislative solution as the most meaningful way to reduce teen smoking.
CNN's Allan Dodds Frank contributed to this article.
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