Senate Hearing Prods Bush Administration on Tobacco Lawsuit

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

( - The Bush administration on Wednesday denied suggestions that it plans to drop or settle the U.S. government's federal lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, a Justice Department attorney said the case is proceeding. But some Democrats aren't buying it.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) noted that Attorney General John Ashcroft has had seven months to review the government's case, but he has not responded to congressional inquiries about it. "Despite repeated congressional inquiries, including more than a few from me," said Durbin, "the administration's official position remains that it is still reviewing the case."

The federal lawsuit against the tobacco industry - filed in 1999 by the Clinton administration - seeks to hold the tobacco industry legally accountable for decades of illegal and harmful practices, such as deceiving the public about the health risks of smoking and marketing cigarettes to kids.

A federal judge refused to dismiss the lawsuit last year, so it's now up to the Bush administration to proceed in the effort to collect billions of dollars that the tobacco companies earned as a result of alleged fraud. (The government alleges the tobacco industry violated federal racketeering laws through deceitful marketing practices.)

"The Department of Justice's management of this case seems unprofessional at best," Durbin said at Wednesday's hearing. "At worst, they are killing this lawsuit and don't have the courage to say it."

Why not kill it, opponents wonder

Opponents of the federal lawsuit against the tobacco industry say it is hypocritical at best. They note the federal government not only supports tobacco farmers, but it also profits from taxes collected on all tobacco sales.

The Libertarian Party calls lawsuits against the tobacco industry "extortion" - an effort by politicians to get money from an industry that makes products they don't approve of. This theory holds that Big Business is a cash cow for a money-hungry federal government.

Then there's the expense of litigating the federal case against the tobacco industry. At Wednesday's committee hearing, Stuart Schiffer, the acting assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's civil division, said he expects litigation costs for 2002 to run about $44-million, but the Bush administration has not said where all the money will come from.

Go get 'em

The government should pursue the case, injured smokers say. Pam DeNardo, an emphysema patient from St. Charles, Illinois, was among those testifying at Wednesday's Judiciary Committee hearing.

"Somewhere, sometime, someone is going to have to pay for all of this," DeNardo said.

DeNardo was speaking on behalf of the American Lung Association, which support efforts to sue Big Tobacco. "We must hold the tobacco industry accountable," DeNardo said. "The American people deserve their day in court."