With 1,200 Deaths a Day, Tobacco Companies Finally Agree to Publish Ads Admitting They Lied about Dangers of Smoking

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Big Tobacco is finally going to publicly admit, over the course of a year, to lying about the dangers of smoking—which kills 1,200 Americans a day—as part of a federal court case that began two decades ago.


In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice under President Bill Clinton sued the country’s largest tobacco companies under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. That led to a 2006 court ruling by U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler, who ordered the industry to issue corrective statements that would set the record straight about smoking.


Kessler wrote: “[This case] is about an industry, and in particular these Defendants, that survives, and profits, from selling a highly addictive product which causes diseases that lead to a staggering number of deaths per year, an immeasurable amount of human suffering and economic loss, and a profound burden on our national health care system. Defendants have known many of these facts for at least 50 years or more. Despite that knowledge, they have consistently, repeatedly and with enormous skill and sophistication, denied these facts to the public, the Government, and to the public health community.”


Lawyers from both sides then spent the next several years arguing in court whether the companies had to issue the statements. The industry insisted the statements amounted to “forced public confessions” that were designed to “shame and humiliate” the companies.


But Kessler’s ruling eventually stood, leading to more squabbling between the government and the cigarette makers over what the statements would have to say.


The long-running saga is close to resolution, now that the two sides have agreed where the statements will be published, how often and at what cost.


The companies involved in the case include Altria Group, owner of the biggest U.S. tobacco company, Philip Morris USA; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco (the second largest), which is owned by Reynolds American; and No. 3 cigarette maker Lorillard.


Under the agreement, each company must publish full-page ads in the Sunday editions of 35 newspapers and on the newspapers’ websites, as well as air prime-time TV spots on CBS, ABC or NBC five times per week for a year. The companies also must publish the corrective statements on their websites and add them to a certain number of cigarette packs three times per year for two years.


Each corrective ad will be prefaced by a statement that a federal court concluded that the companies “deliberately deceived the American public.”


The statements will also say that smoking kills more people than homicides, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes and alcohol combined, that “secondhand smoke kills over 38,000 Americans a year,” that the industry “intentionally designed cigarettes to make them more addictive,” and that nicotine “changes the brain,” making it harder to quit.


Kessler must approve the final agreement, and the two sides are still discussing whether retailers will be required to post large displays with the industry’s admissions.


One group unhappy with the settlement was owners of black newspapers, who complained about their publications being left out of the 35 newspapers selected by Kessler to run the special advertisements.


“We are shocked and deeply disappointed that the Justice Department, the Tobacco-Free Action Fund and the tobacco industry would all agree to sign off an advertising plan that totally disrespects the Black community,” Cloves C. Campbell, chairman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), a federation of nearly 200 Black newspapers, said in a prepared statement. “The industry’s past efforts to target African-American consumers have been thoroughly documented. It is sad that an industry that sought to exploit our community with a product that is harmful to our health now seeks to further devalue African-Americans by ignoring the Black media when it is being forced to atone what a federal judge determined was a deliberate effort to deceive the American public.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Deal Reached on Tobacco Firm Corrective Statements (by Michael Felberbaum, Washington Post)

Proposed Tobacco Settlement Excludes Black Media (NNPA)

Here’s What it Looks Like When a Tobacco Company Says 'I’m Sorry' (by Clara Ritger, National Journal)

United States v. Philip Morris USA (U.S. District Court, District of Columbia) (pdf)

Judge Orders Tobacco Companies to Admit They Lied about Dangers of Smoking (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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