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Washington - Judge Orders Tobacco Companies To Admit Deception Publicly

Published on: November 27, 2012 11:57 PM
By: Reuters
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Washington - Major tobacco companies that spent decades denying they lied to the U.S. public about the dangers of cigarettes must spend their own money on a public advertising campaign saying they did lie, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday.

The ruling sets out what might be the harshest sanction to come out of a historic case that the Justice Department brought in 1999 accusing the tobacco companies of racketeering.

U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler wrote that the new advertising campaign would be an appropriate counterweight to the companies’ “past deception” dating to at least 1964.

The advertisements are to be published in various media for as long as two years.

Details of the campaign - like how much it will cost and which media will be involved - are still to be determined and could lead to another prolonged fight.

Kessler’s ruling on Tuesday, which the companies could try to appeal, aims to finalize the wording of five different statements the companies will be required to use.


One of them begins: “A federal court has ruled that the defendant tobacco companies deliberately deceived the American public by falsely selling and advertising low tar and light cigarettes as less harmful than regular cigarettes.”

Another statement includes the wording: “Smoking kills, on average, 1,200 Americans. Every day.”

The wording was applauded by health advocates who have waited years for tangible results from the case.

“Requiring the tobacco companies to finally tell the truth is a small price to pay for the devastating consequences of their wrongdoing,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an anti-tobacco group in Washington.

The major tobacco companies, which fought having to use words like “deceived” out of concern for their free speech rights, had a muted response.

“We are reviewing the judge’s ruling and considering next steps,” said Bryan Hatchell, a spokesman for Reynolds American Inc.

Philip Morris USA, a unit of Altria Group Inc, is studying the decision, a spokesman said. A spokesman for a third major defendant, Lorillard Inc, had no immediate comment.

The Justice Department, which urged the strong language, was pleased with the ruling, a spokesman said.

Kessler’s ruling considered whether the advertising campaign - known as “corrective statements” - would violate the companies’ rights, given that the companies never agreed with her 2006 decision that they violated racketeering law.

But she concluded the statements were allowed because the final wording is “purely factual” and not controversial.

She likened the advertising campaign to other statements that U.S. officials have forced wayward companies to make.

The Federal Trade Commission, she wrote, once ordered a seller of supposed “cancer remedies” to send a letter on its own letterhead to customers telling them the commission had found its advertising to be deceptive.

“The government regularly requires wrongdoers to make similar disclosures in a number of different contexts,” Kessler wrote.

Early in the long-running case, the Justice Department hoped to extract $280 billion from the companies to pay for a smoking cessation program and other remedies.

It later dropped the demand to $14 billion, and then Kessler ruled she could not force them to pay for such a program at all.

Tobacco companies are separately battling in court with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over the warning labels on tobacco products. The FDA has proposed new, graphic warning labels - one of which includes a photo of a man with a hole in his throat - that companies consider a free speech violation.

When Kessler first ordered the advertising campaign in 2006 - setting off six years of debate on the wording - the statements were to run on major television networks, in cigarette packaging, as full-page newspaper ads and on corporate websites.

The idea was to “structure a remedy which uses the same vehicles which defendants have themselves historically used to promulgate false smoking and health messages,” she wrote then.

But in the years since, “the types of media in which defendants convey commercial messages of this nature have changed dramatically,” Kessler wrote on Tuesday.

Perhaps, she added, the ads should also be in the online versions of newspapers.

The case is USA v. Philip Morris USA, et al, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, No. 99-cv-02496.

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Read Comments (4)  —  Post Yours »


 Nov 28, 2012 at 09:01 AM Insider Says:

Does this mean that the government will refund all the taxes (billions and billions) it collected from smokers? Wasn't the tax itself an endorsement? Wasn't the government, therefore, complicit in the sale and consumption of tobaco products?


 Nov 28, 2012 at 12:12 PM Anonymous Says:

How is the tax an "endorsement"?

A good number of consumers insisted on keeping the wool over their eyes and smoke - and still do on many street corners in Brooklyn and elsewhere - and the government finally found conclusively that not only is there no safe cigarette, but that these companies also deceived and so they have to make up for this deception so that these smokers will, maybe, be better informed when they hear the truth from the mouths of these evil companies.

I'm not sure why it's legal to sell cigarettes in the first place, but once it is legal, I don't see why it shouldn't be taxed, like anything else.


 Nov 28, 2012 at 01:14 PM Insider Says:

At the present time, when smoking has been proven to cause cancer, smoking should be outlawed, just as #2 opines. However, knowing that smoking is dangerous, the government must be faulted for allowing sale of cigarettes and, chutzpah upon chutzpah, for taxing it. Consumers may feel that if the government is taxing and allowing sales of cigarettes, the claim of cancer is not a fact. Try buying heroin or other illegal drugs by claiming that you are paying the legally imposed taxes.


 Nov 29, 2012 at 04:50 AM formercrownheightser Says:

"The FDA has proposed new, graphic warning labels-one of which includes a photo of a man with a hole in his throat-that companies consider a free speech violation." The irony of the wording! Free speech? What speech? Where speech? Actually, the hole, a result of his smoking, clearly violated this man's speech!


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