Chapter 3: A Complex Achievement: The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement

In “Chapter 3: A Complex Achievement: The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement,” Joelle M. Lester and Kerry Cork of the Public Health Law Center at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, discuss the waves of litigation led by state attorneys general that culminated with the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) and assess its record upon implementation.

It is hard to overstate the historic significance of the MSA between the major cigarette companies and 46 states—the largest legal settlement ever executed in the United States. Following decades of unsuccessful individual lawsuits by injured smokers, the MSA and the four individual state tobacco settlements that preceded it showcased the role of litigation as a formidable tool in public health policy and shifted the legal focus from the personal responsibility of plaintiffs, who were often smokers dying of tobacco-related diseases, to the corporate responsibility of the tobacco industry.

The initial goal of the tobacco litigation was to recover monetary damages for the states based on the Medicaid health care costs they had incurred in treating sick and dying cigarette smokers. As part of the MSA, the tobacco industry agreed to compensate the settling states in perpetuity, with annual payments initially expected to total $206 billion through 2025. The other litigation objectives were equally as ambitious: (1) restraining tobacco company marketing and advertising to prevent appeals to youth; (2) ending the industry’s false and deceptive denials of science; and (3) funding public health policy efforts to help current smokers quit and prevent underage smoking.

To this end, the industry agreed to several concessions, including restrictions on advertising, sponsorship, lobbying, and litigation activities—particularly those targeting youth. The restrictions included the creation of a charitable foundation to reduce teen smoking, the disbanding of three tobacco industry organizations, and public access to damaging internal documents demonstrating the extent to which the industry had misled the public about tobacco’s health harms. By many measures, the tobacco settlement agreement was a success. Yet some in the public health community continue to view the MSA’s long-term impact on public health policy and the landscape of tobacco control as a disappointment due in large part to state legislatures’ diversion of MSA funds to non-tobacco control and prevention programs.

About the Authors

Joelle M. Lester is Director of Commercial Tobacco Control Programs of the Public Health Law Center at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, supporting tobacco control policy change throughout the United States. In addition, she oversees efforts to convene national thought leaders around bold policy options to end the tobacco epidemic. She participated in the MSA panel at the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center’s Health & Environmental Settlements Projects workshop in March 2019. She graduated with a BA from the University of Wisconsin and a JD, cum laude, from the University of Minnesota Law School.

Kerry Cork is Senior Staff Attorney at the Public Health Law Center at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, providing legal technical assistance on tobacco and other public health law issues to public health professionals and organizations, legal professionals, and advocates throughout the United States. She also helps oversee the development and dissemination of the Public Health Law Center's tobacco control publications. She graduated magna cume laude with a BA from the University of Minnesota and holds a MA from the University of Minnesota and a JD from William Mitchell College of Law.