Mason Authors Examine Nonconventional Policymaking and Tobacco

Posted: February 9, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Devon Madison

Imagine three fully booked jumbo jets all crashing within a 24-hour period. No survivors. Now imagine that happening every day of the year.

Catherine Rudder
Catherine Rudder

That figure, the equivalent of 400,000 people, approximates the number of lives lost each year to smoking-related illness in the United States. When you extrapolate this figure to a global scale, it translates into roughly 25 large planes crashing every day.

“Smoking is the number one preventable cause of disease and death in the United States and certainly a leading cause of death in the world,” says policy analyst Catherine Rudder.

Rudder and her coauthor, A. Lee Fritschler, both faculty members in Mason’s School of Public Policy, have been investigating nonconventional policymaking with regard to efforts to limit the sale and use of tobacco products.

Lee Fritschler
Lee Fritschler

In their recently updated book, “Smoking and Politics: Bureaucracy Centered Policymaking” (Prentice Hall), the two focus on the role that bureaucracy plays in policymaking and on recent developments in the battle between health advocates and the tobacco companies.

In their view, elected officials often find themselves reacting to, more often than shaping, policy developments within the permanent bureaucracy. And this, Rudder and Fritschler argue, has empowered public health groups to take action through previously unexplored avenues.

“These days, one does not go to Congress alone to change laws. Not only do we have multiple institutions, but we also have multiple levels of government,” says Rudder. “As a result, people don’t have to totally give up on the system because it’s not responding to them. When the system doesn’t respond in one arena, there’s always some other place to go.”

In one chapter in “Smoking and Politics,” Rudder and Fritschler describe how a single state attorney general successfully took on tobacco companies by using this multiple venue approach.

Up until the mid-1990s, tobacco companies had never paid punitive damages for the detriment caused by their products. That changed when Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore pursued an innovative approach to tobacco litigation.

Moore decided to sue the tobacco companies for reimbursement of the costs that the state of Mississippi had assumed in treating smokers in its Medicaid program. He argued the state was an innocent party bearing the brunt of costs generated by a transaction between people who used tobacco products and the companies that sold them.

Moore knew he did not have the resources and in-house expertise to succeed against the tobacco companies. So he cultivated top-notch private litigators to help with the case. He convinced them to use their own money to finance the suit and, if the case succeeded, it would be the tobacco companies that would have to pay the enormous attorneys’ fees. The state could go head to head with these seemingly invincible companies and Mississippi taxpayers could get the best legal counsel for free.

Another part of Moore’s strategy was to lobby other states’ attorney generals to sue the tobacco companies. Eventually, all 50 states filed claims against them.

After sparring for several years, most of the major players in tobacco politics came to the table to negotiate a settlement. The resulting settlement earmarked $1.7 billion to establish the American Legacy Foundation, an organization that would develop programs to decrease teen smoking and smoking in general. The settlement also created firm new restrictions on tobacco marketing and advertising – to teenagers and children especially. Ironically, smokers and their heirs received nothing.

Though many groups believe more needs to be done in the fight against tobacco, the settlement constituted a significant breakthrough in regulating tobacco use.

“I always like to say, ‘Tomorrow is another day,’” Rudder says. “That’s true in American public policy always, and I think it’s a strength of our system.”

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