Tobacco Bonds

My first project for ProPublica was detailed look at how state and local governments turned the landmark 1998 settlement with Big Tobacco from a multi-generational windfall into a multi-generational legacy of debt.

Each April, cigarette manufacturers pay states billions of dollars to reimburse them for the health-care costs of smoking. About $100 billion has been paid so far, all under a landmark 1998 legal settlement with Big Tobacco. The payments are to go on forever as long as people smoke.

Much of the money, however, doesn’t go to government coffers anymore. As my reporting documented, a large chunk now flows to investors – the result of deals that politicians and Wall Street bankers arranged to get cash up-front by trading away the tobacco income decades into the future.

Some of the deals included a form of high-risk debt, capital appreciation bonds, which obligated governments to pay out billions of their tobacco income in the future. The sums are simply too large to be repaid, meaning that for many of the governments involved, the income stream from the 1998 settlement may be lost forever – as well as the opportunity to use the money to better public health.

The alternative? Cutting a deal with investors who bought the debt by bailing them out.

That’s what New Jersey did in a strange deal last year where the state pledged more of its tobacco settlement income to make sure that two troubled capital appreciation bonds would get paid back and avoid default. As I reported, the deal helped a hedge fund clear a $100 million profit on its holdings of the debt, while taxpayers will forego an estimated $400 million in future settlement money. New York counties that sold these bonds engineered similar bailouts, and – with billions of this debt still outstanding – more of them may be in the on the way.

Such is the tangled web that governments have created out of what was supposed to have been a landmark opportunity to improve public health.

Click here to read all the articles in the series, “Tobacco Debt: How Cash From Big Tobacco Went From Boon to Burden.”