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Podcast: The Minnesota Lawsuit: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Narrator:  2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the first Surgeon General’s Report on smoking and health. This series of videos celebrates the progress made—and the work still to be done—to end tobacco-related disease and death.

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Doug Blanke is director of the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium, and works to reduce tobacco use nationwide. He was part of a lawsuit that forced the tobacco industry to turn over millions of pages of documents.

Doug Blanke: I spent much of my career as an assistant attorney general in the state of Minnesota. And I was in charge of enforcing the consumer protection laws. And we worked with many other states to join forces to go after what we perceived as the major problems facing American consumers. And there came a point at which we realized that there was one consumer product that was killing more Americans than everything else put together, and that was cigarettes.And that pulled us in the direction of tobacco control. We began by joining forces on some projects, looking at things like smoking policies in fast food restaurants and practices in the retail setting, of selling cigarettes illegally to young people.

Narrator:After the tobacco industry had won multiple lawsuits against people suing for damages caused by smoking, the state of Minnesota filed a different kind of suit.

Doug Blanke: Well, one of the things that distinguished the Minnesota lawsuit from all the others, probably more than anything else, is that we set out on a quest for the tobacco industry documents.

We were the second state to bring litigation, and what we felt differentiated our case from all the cases that had been brought by private attorneys in the past was that, instead of focusing on the danger inherent in the tobacco product, we focused on the behavior of the tobacco companies and their executives. It became kind of a lawsuit within the lawsuit. It was enormous in scale. I can't describe it adequately, but it did involve two trips to the Supreme Court of the United States. It was massive. Eventually we were able to get access, not to everything we wanted, but to enough.And millions and millions of pages of formerly secret tobacco industry documents that are now public. That are now in the legacy documents depository in San Francisco and available on the Web. And they're the gift that keeps on giving.

Narrator:The documents released because of Minnesota’s lawsuit proved that the tobacco industry marketed to children as young as 12 and 14 years old, that they knew smoking caused cancer, and that they knew nicotine was powerfully addictive.

Doug Blanke: It was the smoking gun, if you will, when it came to our litigation, and to litigation since then that has used the same documents, in that it was very easy for a jury to see the contrast between what the executives had said in public or what they had said to Congress, or what they had said to consumers, and what they were saying among themselves secretly. Even those of us who worked on the litigation in the 1990s never suggested that litigation could ever replace the role of meaningful public health regulation and oversight by the public health professionals. We always saw litigation as something that was in addition to, or a supplement to, the public health infrastructure. But one of the things that the judicial system represented was the primary avenue for justice. Whether it was justice on behalf of taxpayers when states were suing, or as it continues to be, the avenue for justice on behalf of smokers who are, are injured because of the behaviors of these companies, or their loved ones on behalf of smokers who have died.

Narrator:This podcast is a production of the Office of the Surgeon General and CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health. For more information, go to surgeongeneral.gov. The opinions expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Health and Human Services.

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