Tobacco Industry Misled Public for Decades, Federal Judge Rules: Cigarette Manufacturers Escape Fines

Article excerpt

A federal judge's recent ruling that the tobacco industry violated racketeering laws by misleading the public for decades about the health dangers linked to smoking was a long-awaited public health victory. But the court ruling fell short of imposing billions of dollars in financial penalties that would have paid for years of smoking prevention and cessation efforts.

In mid-August, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler wrote in a 1,742-page ruling that the nation's largest cigarette manufacturers and related companies "have marketed and sold their lethal product with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted."

The decision resulted from a Department of Justice lawsuit filed against the tobacco industry in 1999.

Kessler said a 2005 appellate court ruling prevented her from imposing the $10 billion in civil penalties sought by the Department of Justice or the $130 billion sought by six public health groups. Her ruling did order tobacco companies to stop using such terms as "light," "low tar" and "mild" to describe their products and to begin a widespread media campaign on the adverse health effects of smoking and the addictiveness of nicotine.

Just two weeks after the decision, several tobacco companies asked the judge to allow terms such as "light" and "low tar" in overseas cigarette sales, to the dismay of public health advocates.

At press time, officials with the Department of Justice had not decided whether to appeal the ruling on financial penalties.

Many public health advocates were hoping for an appeal on the grounds that the tobacco industry needs to pay to help undo years of deception and unfair marketing. Another concern is that voluntary efforts on the part of tobacco companies would be far less effective than mandated cessation and prevention programs paid for out of company coffers and led by public health officials.

"I think oversight is absolutely essential," APHA member Michael Fiore, MD, MPH, director of the University of Wisconsin Medical School's Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention, told The Nation's Health.

"What the judge found regarding the tobacco companies is a 50-year history of deceit. From my perspective, any programs run by the tobacco companies are unacceptable."

Fiore was a key witness in the remedy phase of the trial, during which he recommended that $130 billion be spent over the next 25 years to help smokers quit. U.S. justice officials initially sought $240 billion in damages when the suit was filed in 1999 but scaled back that request to $10 billion last year. In response, six public health groups--the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, National African American Tobacco Prevention Network and TobaccoFree Kids Action Fund--joined the suit as co-plaintiffs and asked for $130 billion to be spent during the next 25 years to help smokers quit. …