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Joe Camel's broken back

National | An interview with the man who helped place the last straw

Issue: "Children of Chernobyl," April 13, 1996

Imagine Matlock knocking the Marlboro Man out of the saddle. That was the unlikely scenario on March 13 when a cigarette manufacturer, for the first time ever, broke ranks with the tobacco industry to settle a class-action lawsuit. Although the other big tobacco companies haven't given up the fight-they argued before a federal appeals court in New Orleans April 2 that individuals should be forced to pursue lawsuits separately, rather than in a class action-analysts agree that the Liggett settlement has dealt the industry a crippling blow.

Most analysts agree that the defection by tiny Liggett Inc. is the worst thing to hit big tobacco since the invention of the no-smoking sign. The renegade company has agreed to stop marketing to children, to cooperate with the investigation into alleged nicotine-loading by other cigarette makers, and to reimburse several states for their tobacco-related Medicaid expenses.

Almost as unusual as the settlement itself is the lawyer behind it. Don Barrett is neither Perry Mason nor Howard Metzenbaum. He professes to be intimidated by high-powered New York attorneys and antagonistic to anti-business liberals. He's a theological conservative in a liberal denomination: Mr. Barrett is a member of First United Methodist Church of Lexington, Miss.

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"I'm a conservative," he insists. "I'm a Republican. You might not believe it, but I'm a conservative Republican trial lawyer."

Mr. Barrett is also proud to be a follower of Christ. He's proud to be a member of a small family law firm. And he's proud to be a "slow-talking, slow-thinking lawyer from Mississippi." If the aw-shucks manner and the deep southern drawl are affectations, Mr. Barrett pulls them off flawlessly. He seems genuinely bewildered by his sudden success. He seems genuinely thankful for what he sees as the Lord's leading in the case.

But most of all, Mr. Barrett seems genuinely indignant. After more than a decade of getting burned by tobacco company lawyers, he's ready to see the whole industry snuffed out. The Liggett settlement, he believes, is the first step in achieving that goal.

Barrett recently took advantage of a 30-minute court recess to talk to WORLD about the many implications of the case against big tobacco: Medicaid and morality, responsibility and restitution, principles and precedents.

WORLD: Business Week called the Liggett settlement a "breach in the walls of Fortress Tobacco."

Barrett: It's more than a crack in the wall or a hole in the dike. I think it's more like a brick through the windshield. You remember the Wizard of Oz, where everybody was scared of the great wizard and Toto ran up and pulled the curtain back and it was a little guy turning a crank? That's what we've done. We've pulled the curtain back, and we have exposed their vulnerability.

WORLD: So you see this as a moral crusade?

Barrett: Yes, it is a moral crusade. The tobacco industry itself is evil and it does evil things-horrible things-to this country.

I think that the Lord wants us to do this. It is ridiculous to think that a lawyer from a little small town in Mississippi would be negotiating the settlement with a major tobacco company-the historical settlement. But he just put me in the right place. It's all providential and anybody that can't see the hand of God is just blind.

WORLD: Back to the point about the tobacco industry's being an evil industry. The case seems to hinge on the allegation that cigarette makers manipulated nicotine levels in order to keep people hooked. Do you see that as the crux of the case?

Barrett: I see that as the crux of the Castano addiction case [the huge class-action suit filed on behalf of every smoker who has been harmed by cigarettes]. We have evidence that is accumulating almost daily. People are calling us that worked for these companies [to say], "Yes, we did do that and we've been afraid to come forward."

WORLD: What about the separate settlements that Liggett reached with the states?

Barrett: The best way to describe it-and the way I've thought of it all along-is the Good Samaritan analogy. The guy leaves Jerusalem, he's out on the road and the robbers set upon him and beat and rob him and leave him for dead. Eventually the Good Samaritan comes along and binds up his wounds, puts him on his donkey, takes him into the town, tells the innkeeper, "Fix him up, and by the way, here's enough money to last for the next few days until he gets well," and then leaves.

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