Samuelson lecturer aids JeffCo in fight against teen smoking

The Carol W. Samuelson Lectureship is one of Max Michael's favorite events each year because it honors the friend and former Jefferson County health officer for whom it is named and because the lecture topics typically are offbeat.

Attorney Patrick Coughlin helped end the Joe Camel ad campaign with the landmark $12.5 billion 1998 settlement. He spoke about the case and his continuing efforts to help others in the battle against cigarette companies as the Carol W. Samuelson lecturer.
Max Michael, M.D., the dean of the School of Public Health, can thank a friend for helping secure this year's lecturer — Patrick Coughlin, the attorney who helped end the Joe Camel ad campaign with the landmark $12.5 billion recovery for California cities and counties in the 1998 settlement with the tobacco companies.

"Mr. Coughlin is building a house on Smith Lake, and his architect is a friend of mine," Michael says. "He told me about Mr. Coughlin taking on Joe Camel and asked, 'Don't you think that's a pretty good public health topic?'"

Coughlin spoke at the Hill University Center Alumni Auditorium Oct. 20 about his almost decade-long legal battle with R.J. Reynolds over the company's Joe Camel advertising campaign targeted to children under 18. He also talked about his role as a consultant with the Jefferson County Department of Health on the recently awarded $13.3 million Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant — $7 million of which will target tobacco prevention.

Coughlin met with Jefferson County Department of Health officials prior to his lecture to offer some ideas on using the money to support their campaign.

"They want to do really practical and useful things," Coughlin says. "We know smoking causes diseases, it's addictive and it targets our children, but we only have so much money, so what do we do? We talked about things like how you can't sell beer within 1,000 feet of a school, so why not cigarettes? How about having a tobacco-free campus? Target stores don't sell cigarettes, so encourage other corporations that do business in Jefferson County and Birmingham follow their lead."

Jefferson County's tobacco use prevention and cessation initiative will promote changes in policies to reduce smoking opportunities and reduce access to tobacco products. The county will encourage coverage of cessation services and products through worksite insurance and health policies. The county also will continue its efforts to highlight the negative aspects of tobacco use via an aggressive educational campaign including social networking sites.

Documents key to case
Coughlin's route to where he is today has been long but successful. He has been lead counsel for several major securities matters, including one of the largest class-action securities cases to go to trial against Apple Computers in the early 1990s.

Additional prominent securities class actions prosecuted by Coughlin include the Enron litigation, in which $7.3 billion was recovered; the Quest litigation, in which a $445 million recovery was obtained; and the HealthSouth litigation, in which a settlement of $800 million was recovered.

But ending the Joe Camel cartoon ad campaign is one of the most significant, if for no other reason than it marked the first time a tobacco company lost in litigation. Coughlin's team of attorneys obtained and read more than 30 million pages of tobacco company documents that dated as far back as the 1930s. It was the information within some of these documents that lead to the historic settlement.

"The things they wrote in their own words in these documents are pretty incredible to read," Coughlin says. "They researched if tobacco caused cancer on the side, in other countries, and hid the data. They were also trying to figure out what people needed to get the best hit of nicotine. They also figured out that adults don't smoke. They realized, 'If 90 percent of people pick up their first cigarette before they turn 18 - before it's legal — that's our market.' Their own research showed if you smoked 100 cigarettes as a kid, you'd be hooked."

Coughlin says he was able to spend the millions of dollars needed to get the never-before-publicly-seen documents because he worked at a large firm with the monetary resources needed to battle R.J. Reynolds.

"I was used to spending millions of dollars if the reward could be seen at the end," he says. "I didn't know what would happen with the Joe Camel thing, I just knew that it was outrageous that Joe Camel was as recognizable to 6 year olds as Mickey Mouse, who had been around for 50 years. Is that by accident, or is it deliberate?"

Coughlin says tobacco companies had been involved in 800 lawsuits between the 1960s and 1990s, but had never lost - largely because they had never produced any of the damaging documents even though all previous lawsuits asked for them. The companies said the documents didn't exist.

In fact, Coughlin says tobacco executives talked internally about how addictive it was and how it did cause disease.

"Then they figured out it was only children who were the target audience and that was in 1970s, well before anyone else figured that out," Coughlin says. "Then they figured out that it wasn't just nicotine that was addictive, but when it was combined with other drugs and chemicals, it was twice as addictive to children but not adults. That's why children start smoking and stay smoking. Your whole physiology changes over the years. That's why adults don't smoke. It's not only because it's a nasty habit, it's because their brains aren't forming and those compounds don't work the same on an adult brain versus a forming brain. Research has shown that. The tobacco companies were 25 years ahead of the medical community on addiction and cancer, and they hid this stuff."

That's why Coughlin continues to help others — like the Jefferson County Department of Health — when he can. 

Coughlin says the tobacco companies' strategy had always been to reach young people, which makes the Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant a small but key piece of the puzzle in reaching today's youth.

"The fact is we've got limited resources, so what are we going to do with them," he says. "Tobacco companies spend an average of $250 million a year here in Alabama to further their agenda, and we spend an average of $2 million fighting them. It's not really a fair fight. They're doing a lot of things with their money, especially making sure laws don't get passed (to regulate them)."