Protecting Public Health: Enforcing New York’s Landmark Settlement With Tobacco Companies

An interview with Christopher Leung, New York AG’s Health Care Bureau Special Counsel

Today in 1964, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Luther L. Terry released a landmark report on the health impacts of smoking cigarettes. For the first time, the report detailed the robust evidence on smoking’s link to cancer and disease — and suggested that the threat to public health warranted a historic intervention by the government.

Decades of litigation followed. And in 1998, New York and 45 other states, the District of Columbia, and five U.S. territories reached a historic agreement with the five largest tobacco manufacturers. Companies agreed to pay New York and the other states and territories billions of dollars in compensation for the health impacts of their products, to abide by strict limits on their advertising with a total ban on marketing to minors, and to fund public health campaigns to raise awareness of the risks of smoking. This was an enormously important achievement for our public health.

Today, my Health Care Bureau enforces the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) and continues our critical work to ensure that the law protects New Yorkers from public health risks. My staff sat down with Christopher Leung, Special Counsel for the bureau, to talk about this work.

You help run tobacco compliance in New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office. What does this mean on a day-to-day basis?

We make sure that tobacco manufacturers are following the law and sticking to the restrictions that were laid out in the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement— like no advertising to minors. We ensure that the tobacco companies are meeting their payment obligations to New York. We also enforce state and federal laws governing the transportation of cigarettes, coordinate efforts with other regulators, and keep pushing forward with new actions to address the devastating public health harms caused by cigarettes.

What role did New York have in the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement?

The New York Attorney General’s office helped to lead the negotiations, along with the other states, when the settlement first came into being. We helped hammer out the details of the agreement to make sure that New Yorkers were adequately protected. And our office helped take the lead in defending it from legal challenges.

What was the legal landscape around tobacco before the Master Settlement Agreement, and how did it change after? How did it change the way our country thinks about cigarettes?

Before the Master Settlement Agreement, smoking was a ubiquitous activity that happened almost everywhere you looked. There were large cigarette billboard advertisements near every road and highway. There were candy-flavored cigarettes and cartoon characters, like Joe Camel, that the tobacco companies used to target and entice kids into smoking. Most disturbingly, the tobacco companies continued to muddy the scientific research in the field and deny that cigarettes were addictive.

After the Master Settlement Agreement, it was a different world. Industry documents produced as a direct result of the agreement showed that in fact, for years, the tobacco companies knew that cigarettes were addictive. The documents also showed that the companies had actively sought to target youth, and had manipulated the levels of nicotine in cigarettes to maintain their addictive power.

The agreement’s broad public health provisions mandated that the tobacco companies’ billboard advertisements come down, and put an end to candy flavored cigarettes and cartoon characters. The agreement specifically prohibited the tobacco companies from targeting youth. And perhaps most significantly, the agreement helped to change people’s thinking of smoking as a normal activity, to something that was incredibly harmful and which the tobacco companies had a deep vested interest in promoting.

What are some of the recent accomplishments you’re most proud of in the bureau?

In 2015, we won a major victory forcing tobacco companies to pay New York $550 million that had been withheld during a decade-long dispute over the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. That new agreement closed loopholes that the companies had used to dispute payments to New York, and ensured billions in future compensation to New York State, New York City, and counties across the state.

Last year, our office also went to trial against UPS for its delivery of contraband cigarettes. These deliveries violated several federal and state laws, as well as an earlier settlement agreement that our office had entered into with the company. After years of litigation and two weeks of trial, the court found the company liable on all counts. The court awarded our office and the City of New York damages and penalties against the company, reflecting in part the substantial harm to public health caused by contraband cigarettes.