Florida’s past brings charges of hypocrisy from tobacco industry
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ The cigarettes were loaded with pesticides, trash and dangerous additives. Smokers like prison inmate Bob Posey called them RIPs _ short for rest in peace.
The RIPs were given to inmates, minors and even hospital patients, not by tobacco companies like Philip Morris or R.J. Reynolds, but by the state of Florida.
The same state that produced the high-nicotine, no-filter cigarettes for four decades is now suing the tobacco industry to recoup an estimated $2.4 billion in taxes spent since 1994 to treat sick smokers. Florida claims the industry deceived the public about the dangers of smoking.
The trial is scheduled to begin in August, but industry lawyers have already won a small victory.
After learning of the state’s cigarette operation, they fought successfully to make Florida a defendant in its own lawsuit. Should the state win any damages, it will have to give up a small amount.
The state cigarettes were made by inmates, who got them for free. But the Department of Corrections brand cigarettes were also given to minors in Florida’s prison system.
``They had access to them freely as we did,″ said Posey, who worked at an office on the juvenile side of Baker Correctional Institute in Jacksonville.
``I didn’t see anybody that didn’t have them,″ he said. ``Some, I would guess, were probably as young as 15 years old, 15, 16 years old.″
Posey, who is serving three 99-year sentences for sexual battery, remembers the cigarettes as very harsh _ and that hundreds of minors smoked them.
``You smoked them at your own risk type situation, because they were very rough cigarettes,″ Posey said during a recent deposition. ``Everybody used to kind of believe that they might have been floor sweepings, or something or other, from the way that they smoked and burned.″
Florida made the cigarettes from 1935 to 1978 in a factory at Florida State Prison, distributing millions of packs throughout the state and selling them to local governments.
According to court records and state documents, cigarettes were sold to the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services for use in state hospitals. The cigarettes were distributed to patients.
The Department of Corrections stopped producing them when state lawmakers refused to pay to upgrade the factory to make better quality, filtered cigarettes.
``A group at the University of Florida ... asserted that the cigarettes manufactured by the state were causing cancer among the inmates due to the high nicotine content,″ according to minutes from a 1980 meeting of the governor’s corrections committee.
``The Legislature indicated it did not care whether the nicotine content was high or low.″
Stephen Krigbaum, a lawyer for the Philip Morris Cos., said Florida knew of the health risk and still produced cigarettes he contends were worse than what the industry was producing.
``This is the best example of the state’s hypocrisy,″ Krigbaum said. ``They have been a part of the same industry that they so loudly vilify in court.″
Attorney General Bob Butterworth said the state got out of the business because of damage to inmates’ health.
``Somebody back then must have believed what the cigarette companies were telling them,″ said Butterworth. He said he did not consider the state’s lawsuit an example of hypocrisy.
W.C. Gentry, the product liability lawyer heading Florida’s litigation team, said Florida was never involved in any conspiracy to cover up the effects of cigarettes.
The state didn’t publish ads saying smoking was not dangerous, he said, and it didn’t rig nicotine levels to hook smokers.
``The state did not have any business making cigarettes, but I’m glad they got out of it,″ Gentry said. ``I sure wish they’d never done it.″
Mississippi has cut its own $3.6 billion deal with the tobacco industry, guaranteeing itself a share of the proposed $368 billion national settlement. The state had sued in 1994 to recover the costs of smoking-related illnesses.
Mississippi was the first state to take cigarette makers to court, and is the first to win an upfront share of the historic deal involving 40 state lawsuits. The state will receive $170 million immediately.