Tobacco companies ordered to admit they lied over smoking danger
Major tobacco companies who spent decades denying they lied to the US 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.
US district judge Gladys Kessler wrote that the new advertising campaign would be an appropriate counterweight to the companies' "past deception" dating back to at least 1964.
The advertisements are to be published in various media for up to two years.
Details of the campaign – 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 against, aims to finalise 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.
"These statements do exactly what they should do. They're clear, to the point, easy to understand, no legalese, no scientific jargon, just the facts," said Ellen Vargyas, general counsel for the American Legacy Foundation.
The largest cigarette companies in the US spent $8.05bn in 2010 to advertise and promote their products, down from $12.5bn in 2006, according to a report issued in September by the Federal Trade Commission.
The major tobacco companies, which fought against having to use words such as "deceived" in the statements, citing concern for their rights of free speech, gave 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.
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 US 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.