Florida Rethinks Big Tobacco

  • Share
  • Read Later

Florida's Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher as he is sworn-in earlier this year

Is Florida headed back to Tobacco Road? Four years ago, the Sunshine State's employee retirement fund divested itself of more than $800 million in tobacco company stocks. Keeping the almost 20 million shares looked socially irresponsible since Florida was suing Big Tobacco for state medical dollars spent treating smoking-related illnesses and death, which resulted in a $13 billion settlement. As early as Wednesday, however, Florida may well decide to re-invest in the industry it has so successfully demonized in recent years. With tobacco stocks on the rise, Florida Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher now suggests that the state should do what's best for its $100 billion retirement fund. But at least he didn't try to rationalize the idea: asked by TIME if social and fiduciary responsibility could co-exist, he said, "Nope."

If Florida does re-invest in tobacco, critics will be sure to point out that almost three-quarters of the $400,000 the industry funneled to the state's 2000 elections went to Republican candidates. Gallagher, Governor Jeb Bush and Comptroller Roger Milligan, who oversee the retirement fund, are Republicans all. But Florida wouldn't be the first to reverse itself: of the nine states who divested themselves of tobacco since 1996, Kentucky and Maryland have since allowed for re-investment. Still, Rhea Chiles, wife of the late Florida Governor Lawton Chiles, who led the divestment drive, noted that "if the decision to invest in tobacco is simply one of dollars and cents, why in the world would [we] feed the demon that will cost our taxpayers hundreds of millions in future health care costs?"