Why Big Government Is Suing Big Tobacco

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Finally, Bill Clinton got the headline he has been dreaming of for years: "Justice Department Sues Big Tobacco." Claiming that tobacco companies conspired to conceal the risks of cigarette smoking from the public and thus engaged in consumer fraud, federal lawyers will invoke the federal civil racketeering statute and ask for $25 billion to recoup taxpayer dollars spent to cover smoking-related health-care costs for veterans, military personnel, federal employees and the elderly through Medicare payments. Although under the law an award could be triple that if the feds can get a jury to see things their way, even $75 billion seems suspiciously like small potatoes compared to the $240 billion settlement the states got and the $500 billion-plus proposal that John McCain wanted.

TIME national affairs writer Alain Sanders figures the government is in this for more than the money. "The industry regulation that the states won wasnít as far-reaching as Clinton wanted, and the money they got isnít going to smoking prevention," he says. "The administration is going to try to use a lawsuit as leverage to get the regulatory measures that failed in Congress, and also get in a slap at the Republicans for killing that bill." Indeed, a jury might find it hard to see the U.S. government as the victim. The generation that is these days dying of lung cancer and emphysema is the same one that went off to World War II with Luckies and Camels enthusiastically included by Uncle Sam in Red Cross packages. But this case seems meant for the negotiating table, not the courtroom. Itís a lawsuit that two years ago Justice didnít think it could win, and seems resurrected solely to follow through on a promise Clinton made in Januaryís State of the Union address. "As complex as this litigation is, thereís going to be a strong desire to settle on both sides," says Sanders. And as badly as the surplus-minded Clinton could use $75 billion, a legacy-building handcuffing of Big Tobacco is priceless.