Tipping Point: Tobacco

 Phil Carlton grew up the son of a tobacco-warehouse owner in Pinetops. After a long legal career that included a stint as a state Supreme Court justice, he was hired in the mid-‘90s by the Big Four tobacco companies — R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard — to help negotiate a settlement with 46 states and anti-smoking forces. The agreement they signed in 1998 limited tobacco advertising and forced tobacco companies to pay billions of dollars to the states each year.

Big Tobacco’s willingness to consider a settlement was the most dramatic change in attitude in history. I kid you not. Nobody believed it. I had represented tobacco companies before, and they would fight you over nothing. They were just paranoid. They didn’t want to lose anything. They were afraid of setting a precedent. But in the early ’90s, they saw a powerful army forming against them, including the plaintiff’s bar, public-interest groups, the Clinton White House and a number of young Democrat attorneys general. Tobacco companies may look stupid, but they ain’t totally stupid. The word was getting back to them that this crowd was meeting every week, plotting and planning legislation that would control the industry. My first assignment was: Get us invited to the meetings. I spent from Thanksgiving in ’96 till April in ’97 just getting tobacco to the table. The health people didn’t trust them. They wouldn’t let me bring anybody from tobacco for a long time. Finally, I was instructed to go before the AGs and say that the tobacco companies were willing to drop Joe Camel from the advertising. Joe Camel was an icon. Joe Camel was regarded in the advertising industry as the most brilliant piece of work ever done. It sold a lot of cigarettes, including some to children, which was a problem. I went in and said, ”Gentleman, I have something to tell you — just to give you an idea of our sincerity. I’m prepared to give you Joe Camel. No more Joe Camel ads.” You could have heard a pin drop. You really could. Then the AGs were leaning over, talking to the person next to them. And I had my invitation the next day.