A decision by New Jersey's Republican leadership to sue the tobacco industry could reignite an effort to raise the state's cigarette tax, using proceeds to subsidize hospital care for the poor and uninsured.
Last week, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and state Attorney General Deborah T. Poritz said they plan to file a lawsuit against tobacco companies to recoup funds spent for tobacco-related illnesses. The state plans to hire outside counsel to handle the litigation. That counsel also will determine the amount to be sought in state court.
It's estimated that New Jersey's Medicaid program and other payers spend $2 billion annually on diseases and other healthcare problems related to smoking.
This latest swipe at the embattled tobacco industry follows suits by Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Texas and West Virginia. New Jersey's decision is significant because Whitman is the only Republican governor to join the bandwagon, said Richard A. Daynard, a professor of law at Northeastern University, Boston, and head of the Tobacco Products Liability Project, a public advocacy group. "It underlines that this is now a bipartisan issue," he said.
The Medical Society of New Jersey, which lobbied for the suit, applauded the state's decision on financial and ethical grounds. "Considering that the state currently is struggling to fund charity care and that our Medicaid outlay for tobacco-related disease is so high, filing the suit is a logical course to recover the cost of hospital care for poor and indigent tobacco addicts," said Louis L. Keeler, M.D., president of the 9,500-member association.
"We can no longer condone an industry that markets and sells a product for the sole intention of harming its consumers," Keeler said.
Meanwhile, the NJHA said it has revived its push for a 25-cent increase in the state's cigarette tax, which would raise $150 million to fund charity care in the state. The governor's announcement is "perfect timing," said Peter Lillo, an NJHA government affairs official. "We think this really will add some credence to our asking for an increase in the cigarette tax."
New Jersey's mechanism for charity-care funding expired last Dec. 31, and the NJHA has threatened to sue if the issue isn't resolved.