November 20, 2019

How AGs held Big Tobacco liable—and what it might mean for Big Polluters today

Two people at a climate protest holding signs: “Polluters Out, People In” and “Make them pay for deceiving the public.”

“I believe nicotine is not addictive,” declared William Campbell, President of Philip Morris U.S.A, in 1994. Under oath at a Congressional hearing, he sat at a long table with six other tobacco corporation executives. And each of them claimed to believe that nicotine was not addictive.

Twenty five years later, notorious climate denier Marc Morano proclaimed: “Oddly, the more carbon-based fuels you can introduce in the developing world – Africa, South America, Asia – the cleaner the environment gets,” on the conservative TV show, “Fox & Friends.”

Recently, there’s been a good deal of attention to the parallels between the tactics—like spreading false information and lies—of Big Tobacco and Big Polluters. The tobacco industry was trying to prevent public health protections, while Big Polluters are attempting to delay climate action. Now, as lawsuits against Big Polluters like the fossil fuel industry gain steam, the story of how Big Tobacco was ultimately held liable in the U.S. sheds some helpful light for those seeking to do the same with Big Polluters.

Using the same playbook

Both Big Tobacco and Big Polluters have spent vast amounts of money to influence or silence public discussion on the effects of their products, in order to weaken political will for action. As a recent report on Big Polluters’ decades of deception states:

This is not the first time that corporations prioritizing profits over people have caused great harm. The tobacco industry spent hundreds of millions of dollars disinforming the public about the health impacts of smoking in order to undermine tobacco control. … Drawing on the tobacco industry’s playbook, fossil fuel companies have done the same on climate change, spending hundreds of millions of dollars confusing the public and delaying life-saving action. Their legacy is the death, destruction, and injustices of irreversible global warming. Big Oil is the new Big Tobacco.

Today’s growing momentum for fossil fuel liability

But you can’t deceive people forever. Especially when millions of people are dying from lung cancer and other diseases. Or when wildfires rage, coastal cities keep flooding, and insects and birds begin to disappear en masse.

Today, there is a growing momentum to hold Big Polluters liable for their role in knowingly fueling the climate crisis. As Emily Atkin of HEATED put it, Big Oil is having its Big Tobacco moment. Just a few recent developments:

  • New York State Attorney General Letitia James took Exxon Mobil to court for alleged shareholder fraud. This case is one of the first to go to trial out of more than a dozen current cases against the fossil fuel industry. If New York wins, it will set an important precedent, and it will be an encouraging sign to other states considering a lawsuit.
  • Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced a lawsuit against Exxon, after more than three years of investigation. AG Healey has been defying Exxon’s attempts to shut down her investigation—and her decision to move forward also provides encouragement for other states to do the same. This case is based on Massachusetts’ consumer protection law, and many states have similar laws that could be used as the basis for this kind of lawsuit.
  • The city of Honolulu, Hawai’i and the county of Maui, Hawai’i both plan to sue the industry.
  • Congress held a historic hearing on the fossil fuel industry’s decades of deception.

How these cases will play out is yet to be seen. That’s why we must apply what worked to catalyze “Big Tobacco’s moment”—to make “Big Polluters’ moment” count.

Organizing AGs critical to holding Big Tobacco liable

In May 1994, a whistleblower leaked internal tobacco industry documents to the press—making headlines in major newspapers across the country. The media coverage of these documents—and the public outrage that followed—emboldened industry whistleblowers to provide further evidence that the industry knew the harms its products caused.

Throughout that year, there was a slow drip of damning documents, which provided fodder for a steady stream of news stories. While the executives of seven Big Tobacco corporations tried to head off action by telling Congress they didn’t believe nicotine was addictive, days later, an internal document was released that revealed they were lying. And legal action against the industry picked up. The first class-action suit against the industry was filed, and state attorneys general began suing the industry, starting with Mike Moore in Mississippi. Over the next eighteen months about a dozen states filed suit.

But it took a good amount of organizing to bring this about. While grassroots organizing mobilized people  around the country, AG Moore and other lawyers met with state AGs around the country to convince them to file cases against the industry. There was a conference for AGs and private attorneys to discuss suing Big Tobacco, and opportunities for AG staff members to meet with public health experts. They even created a website on the nascent internet in 1996 to share information and tactics with AGs around the country.

By the time of the Master Settlement Agreement in 1998, 46 states had filed lawsuits against Big Tobacco.

The impacts of these cases were enormous. As the lawsuits mounted, public opinion continued to shift. The Minnesota lawsuit went to trial and resulted in the release of millions of damning internal documents. These documents—which made crystal clear the industry’s tactics to mislead the public and undermine public health policy—strengthened the resolve of policymakers all over the globe to take action. Indeed, delegates of the WHO global tobacco treaty were emboldened to fight for strong corporate accountability measures in part because of the release of these documents. Today, this precedent-setting treaty is saving lives, having paved the way for public health protections in countries all over the world. And in the end, the Master Settlement Agreement forced the tobacco industry to pay billions of dollars in damages in perpetuity.

Making this moment count

Today’s cascade of lawsuits could be just beginning for the fossil fuel industry. Recent events are important milestones in shifting the public climate and building the political will needed to hold Big Polluters liable and shut them out of climate policymaking—not just in the U.S. but also internationally.

U.S. public outrage and demand for action has a critical role to play in moving public officials to take action. Today, more people than ever in the U.S. are demanding climate action, following decades of organizing by the environmental justice movement led by Black and indigenous communities, communities of color, and youth. It’s a critical opportunity to turn the tide of climate history. That’s why Corporate Accountability is organizing people to call on Congress and state attorneys general to hold Big Polluters liable. Organizing AGs to take on Big Tobacco worked. We can do the same with Big Polluters.

And we are going even further. The call to hold Big Polluters liable is resounding beyond the U.S., as more and more people see liability as a key component to achieving climate justice. Real, just climate solutions are within reach, and have been developed and led by communities hardest hit by climate change for decades, particularly in the Global South. Holding polluting industries liable could be part of financing climate justice globally.

As the annual U.N. climate treaty negotiations approach, people across the globe are calling on officials at all levels to make Big Polluters pay for the climate damage they are causing. This is exactly the scale we need right now as the climate catastrophe deepens.

In just four years in the 1990s, the tobacco industry went from getting away with murder to being held accountable by more than 90% of U.S. attorneys general. The CEOs went from blithely lying to Congress to being investigated for perjury and leaving the industry. We can do the same—and more—with the fossil fuel industry and other Big Polluters. In the 1990s, millions of people’s lives were on the line. Today, the stakes are even higher. Planetary survival is on the line.

Holding Big Polluters liable is a critical component to finance and implement just climate solutions. Be part of making climate history–take action today.

Special thanks to Richard Daynard and Mark Gottlieb of the Public Health Advocacy Institute for providing first-hand information about the history of the Master Settlement Agreement, which informed this post.

Corporate Accountability
Our Movement Needs You
You’ll receive email action alerts from Corporate Accountability.

Corporate Accountability is looking for a new Executive Director