It's been twenty years since the big tobacco settlement. The one that came after the nation's cigarette makers got caught red handed in a decades-long cover-up of their products' risks and addictive qualities. As part of their punishment, they agreed to pay hundreds of billions of dollars. But it turns out all that money didn't go where you might have thought. And because of it, another battle is still, quietly being fought out in court all these years later. Today's cover story is the forgotten tobacco war.
TV commercial: Winston tastes good like a cigarette shouldWinston tastes good like a cigarette should.
Generations have never turned on TV and seen ads like this
TV commercial: Yeah Barney, Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.
TV Commercial, Lucille Ball: Nothing but the best for Mr. Ricardo
Smoking was endorsed by celebrities
TV Commercial, Desi Arnaz: Thank you. Lucille Ball: You see how easy it is to keep your man happy? Why not give your husband a carton of Philipp Morris cigarettes? Desi Arnaz: Smart move.
It was heavily marketed as the habit of manly men.
TV Commercial: I get to working on it, and I even forget to eat; you don't forget to smoke though. I always smoke when I work. They go together.
But in the 1990s, whistleblower documents exposed an epic cover up. Cigarette makers had long hidden what they knew about their products' dangers and addictive qualities.
Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore (1997): This is an industry that kills 400-thousand people a year in this country.
In 1998, the four biggest cigarette makers agreed to pay 46 states the largest civil settlement in history: $246 billion over 25 years. But you might be surprised to hear that wasn't the neat and tidy ending one might have expected.
Sharyl: Is it accurate to say the big giant tobacco settlements we heard about weren't going to the victims, they were going to states for counter advertising and things like that?
Ken Byrd: That's right. For health campaigns. But, you know, the victims didn't get anything from that.
Not a penny of the 246-billion went to the actual smokers who'd been flooded with deceptive marketing that portrayed smoking as glamorous or even healthy, only to get hooked and develop cancer or other serious diseases.
Ken Byrd: It's almost like a Grisham novel.
Attorney Ken Byrd represents some of those smokers and their families today. He helps tell the rest of the story. After the big tobacco settlement with the states, a group of 700-thousand Florida smokers won a separate class action lawsuit against the cigarette makers worth $145 billion. But on appeal the courts decided each case would have to be tried individually, instead. As a result, 8,000 individual cases were filed. It's taken years for the plaintiffs to get their day in court.
Ken Byrd: Each person has to come one by one by one to file their claim.
Sharyl: Do a lot of these plaintiffs are victims, or alleged victims, die as they're awaiting these trials?
Ken Byrd: They do. Unfortunately, part of the strategy of the tobacco industry has been to delay these things so that smokers will die, because under certain circumstances, that benefits them under Florida law.
One of the victims- Florida postal worker Wanette Smith.
Sharyl: How old were you and your wife when the two of you met?
James Smith: She was like 17 and I was like 21.
Sharyl: She was already a smoker?
James Smith: Yes ma'am.
James Smith says his wife began smoking when she was about eleven, in the 1940s.
James Smith: My opinion is, it's addictive. I said, Well, I'll quit this if you will quit that. But she said, You don't understand. I just can't. And she tried, and she tried, but she couldn't.
Wanette got lung cancer in her early 40s and joined the group in the Florida lawsuit. She died at age 47.
James Smith: She just told me before she passed away, I mean, why--but she just said, I don't want you to drop this. I want you to pursue it. You know, we have two sons. I want you to pursue the lawsuit. I want you to keep it going. I said, Okay, whatever you want me to do. That's what I'll do.
That was back in 1995. James remarried and had another family, but continued the lawsuit. Finally, in 2012, there was a trial. A jury concluded Wanette was 45 percent responsible for her lung cancer and R.J. Reynolds was 55 percent responsible. The jury awarded $620-thousand dollars. Byrd says the challenge at any trial is getting the jury into the mindset of a bygone era; Jurors who forgot or never knew what the smoking culture was like.
Ken Byrd: You have to bring in a jury, some of which are too young to remember, for example, that cigarette advertising was all over the place in the 1950s and when television first came on.
TV Commercial: Time out for many men of medicine usually means just long enough to enjoy a cigarette. And because they know what a pleasure it is to smoke a mild, good tasting cigarette, they're particular about the brand they choose.
Ken Byrd: They had doctors advertising cigarettes or people dressed in doctor outfits.
Commercial: Doctors in all branches of medicine, doctors in all parts of country when asked 'What cigarette do you smoke doctor?' Once again, the brand named most was Camel. Yes, according to this repeated nationwide survey, more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.
Ken Byrd: The tobacco industry had funneled millions of dollars to the American Medical Association to stop them from taking a stand on whether smoking caused disease or not, had dramatic effects. Meanwhile, they're showing doctors in ads. They're showing how glamorous it is. And so it was just a different time, because today of course a lot of people go, "Well, doesn't everybody knows smoking's bad for you?" The tobacco industry tries to paint it, that since there were reports about smoking that everybody must have known.
It was the 1960s when public health authorities including the U.S. Surgeon General began sounding the alarm. As late as the mid-90s, tobacco executives were still in denial.
Sen. Ron Wyden: Do you believe nicotine is not addictive?
Tobacco Executive: I believe nicotine is not addictive, yes.
Tobacco Executive: I believe nicotine is not addictive.
Videos are shown to jurors over and over, as Byrd and his team tries the cases one by one, in court.
Ken Byrd: You know, it's almost like Groundhog Day in some of these trials because the documents against the tobacco industry are very similar.
Sharyl: What was the quote about the money bags?
Ken Byrd: They'd been able to deliver nicotine within 10 seconds to the brain, which is part of what makes it so addictive and so deadly is that you inhale nicotine.
Sharyl: And it said it was faster than alcohol or marijuana...
Ken Byrd: Right, they were happy about that. And they say, "You know, the only problem we're going to have is find a big enough bag to carry all the money to the bank."
The tobacco companies wouldn't agree to an interview for this report. One tally in 2015 found that out of the 8,000 Florida cases, there had been 141 verdicts. 90 for the smokers, 51 for the cigarette makers. A big reason the Florida trials have gone on so long is because of lengthy appeals. Many cases are overturned or the verdicts reduced. Last month, Byrd was in Atlanta for the tobacco company's appeal of a case his client won in 2015. They're trying to have the verdict thrown out. For James Smith, the legal journey spanned 23 years and finally ended last January when a court denied R.J. Reynold's challenge of the jury verdict. For many others, the forgotten tobacco war goes on.
James Smith: I love my wife and then thinking about it is, is I had two sons and they love their mother. Yeah. At 47 years old, that's just cutting your life short.
Right now, there are about 50 tobacco trials per year. At that rate, it would take until about 2075 for everyone to get their day in court. But it’s unlikely all will, as elderly plaintiffs pass away and some families choose to give up the fight.