Saturday, August 27, 2005

Tennessee Attorney General Accuses Country Music Star of Master Setttlement Agreement Violation for Pulling Skoal Out of Pocket on Stage

Tennessee Attorney General Paul G. Summers asked country music star Gretchen Wilson to stop removing a can of Skoal from her pocket during performances of her song "Skoal Ring," whose title refers to the wear mark that the smokeless tobacco cans leave in a blue jeans pocket.

Summers made the request in order to stop the country music artist from promoting smokeless tobacco to youths present at her concerts. However, he based the request at least in part on his contention that Wilson's removal of the Skoal can during her concerts may violate the terms of the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) signed by the state of Tennessee and by the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company, manufacturer of Skoal.

Summers wrote: "The company that manufactures Skoal, the United States Smokeless Tobacco Company, has signed the Smokeless Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which prohibits targeting youth for tobacco product sales. Attorney General Summers is also contacting the manufacturer about the use of its products at Wilson’s concerts."

The media interpreted Summers' statement as suggesting that Wilson was violating the MSA, and reported the story as such. According to the Associated Press article on the topic, "A warning letter said the routine might violate the 1998 tobacco settlement, which forbids tobacco ads targeting young people."

The Rest of the Story

While the Attorney General of Tennessee can certainly request that Wilson stop using the Skoal can in her performance so as not to promote the use of smokeless tobacco to young people, it seems inappropriate for him to invoke the Master Settlement Agreement and threaten to use the force of law to try to convince Wilson to alter her act.

Because the MSA is a contract between the tobacco companies and the states, it clearly does not apply to individual country music artists and what they choose to do during their performances. It cannot apply to such individuals, because they are not party to the contract.

The Tennessee Attorney General's suggestion that Wilson's act violates the MSA is preposterous, and his contention is in direct conflict with the First Amendment to the Constitution, as well as other consitutional rights, including due process. There is no way that the state of Tennessee can impose requirements on the musical performance of an artist who is not party to the MSA contract. The MSA prohibits targeting of youths by the tobacco companies which signed the Agreement, not by country music performers.

The only exception to this would have been if Wilson was being paid by the smokeless tobacco company for using the Skoal in her performance, in which case it could have been interpreted as the tobacco company, rather than Wilson, which was promoting the product. But that is not the case, as Wilson stated that she has no relationship with the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company.

In the end, Wilson voluntarily agreed to discontinue the use of the Skoal can in her act. However, the fact that Summers apparently saw fit to inappropriately invoke the MSA in trying to influence Wilson's actions is unfortunate.

It's great that Attorney General Summers is concerned about the promotion of smokeless tobacco to youths, but that concern certainly doesn't justify the threatened unjustified intrusion into an individual's First Amendment rights.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Tennessee AG never threatened legal action against the country singer; he simply asked her to stop promoting Skoal, which, as you point out, Wilson has done voluntarily. His investigation of possible STMSA violations involved USSTC, not the singer. USSTC was contacted by the state AG's office regarding the use of its products during the concerts. If USSTC had any role in sponsoring the concert or paid for product placement, the company would have been in violation of the STMSA. The state AG has the right to investigate such possible violations. The Tennessee AG never threatened any legal action against Wilson or violated her First Amendment rights, so at least get "the rest of the story" right.

Michael Siegel said...

Anonymous-
In my opinion, the Tennessee AG most certainly did invoke the Master Settlement Agreement. He did so by issuing a public press release that intimated that Wilson's behavior may be in violation of the MSA. According to him: "The company that manufactures Skoal, the United States Smokeless Tobacco Company, has signed the Smokeless Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which prohibits
targeting youth for tobacco product sales. Attorney General Summers is also contacting the manufacturer about the use of its products at Wilson’s concerts."

There is no qualification to the statement here. In the public's eye, it appears that Wilson's action is in violation of the MSA and I think that's how a reasonable person would interpret the statement.

You just don't go out and make a public intimation of this type that is going to mislead people into thinking that the actions of a private individual are violating the law.

Had the Tennessee AG clarified the statement and explained that unless Wilson was being paid to display the Skoal then there was no violation of the MSA, then that would have been fine. I would have had no complaints with such a statement.

In addition, had the AG had reason to believe that Wilson was being paid by U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company, then it would have been fine. But he should have done that research before making a public statement that I think would be interpreted by most of the public as an accusation that there was wrongdoing occurring here.

I stand by the "rest of the story" as it was presented.

Anonymous said...

That's the spin the newspapers put on it, that somehow the singer was in violation of the MSA. But I don't see how asking the singer to stop promoting SKOAL and notifying her that it would separately check into possible USSTC connections violated anyone's constitutional rights. As it turns out, the state AG's approach was effective in bringing about voluntary change. Isn't that what we'd like to see in public health: public education on health effects as well as legal implications if in fact the person was violating a law or agreement? Isn't that the nature of public health campaigns aimed at increasing seat belt use: explain the health consequences but also the possibility of legal consequences? Or should the state AG have done nothing for several months while it investigated USSTC?

Michael Siegel said...

"That's the spin the newspapers put on it, that somehow the singer was in violation of the MSA."

This is precisely the problem. The "spin" that the newspapers supposedly put on this actually came from the Tennessee AG, whose press release intimated that there may be a violation of the MSA taking place.

This is why I think it was irresponsible of the AG to include this in the press release. If he was not aware of any MSA violation, he should not have intimated to the press that there may be a violation.

That's all I'm saying. I don't think that's a lot to ask - to verify claims of illegal actions before they are made. Even a suggestion of illegal activity in a press release is, in my view, a claim, because the media will certainly portray it that way.

Should the state AG have done nothing for several months while it investigated USSTC? No - he could have done exactly what what he did do, but minus the invocation of the MSA.