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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A dispute over Louisiana's compliance with a tobacco settlement agreement is threatening the state with losing $140 million or more, including dollars that pay for the state's free college tuition program called TOPS.

Attorney General Buddy Caldwell's top assistant outlined the problem to lawmakers Wednesday, which involves several states.

The Advocate reports (http://bit.ly/12aNcbc) that Caldwell's first assistant Trey Phillips said the tobacco companies claim Louisiana and other states haven't met their obligations under the settlement agreement, specifically to regulate off-brand cigarette companies.

Phillips said the state could lose its April 15, 2014, payment of $140 million and a similar amount a year later.

'There's a lot of money at stake and some very important programs at stake,' Phillips told the House and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The issue goes before an arbitration panel of three retired federal judges in March in Florida.

In 1998, the major tobacco companies agreed to pay states more than $200 billion to settle lawsuits over the health-care costs related to smoking. The money was to be paid over 25 years. The state sold 60 percent of the future settlement in 2001. Some of Louisiana's annual tobacco settlement proceeds support the TOPS program.

As part of the settlement agreement, states were required to be diligent in making sure that cigarette companies that were not part of the settlement pay a $6-per-carton fee to an escrow fund. The idea was to stop nonparticipating companies from undercutting those making the settlement payments.

Since 2006, the companies involved in the settlement have alleged that states have not been living up to their part of the bargain.

Phillips said the attorney general's office will beef up its tobacco unit to ensure the state is complying with its agreement.

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