Big Tobacco and Justice

Multinational Monitor, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview
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Big Tobacco and Justice


FOR THE PAST YEAR, what may well be the greatest trial ever on corporate wrongdoing has quietly unfolded in a Washington, D.C. federal district courtroom.

There Judge Gladys Kessler has presided over the U.S. Department of Justice's civil RICO case against the tobacco industry. RICO is the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, and has both civil and criminal components.

The Department of Justice's filings constitute the clearest and most compelling account of the conspiracy by Big Tobacco to deceive people in the United States about the health effects of cigarette smoking.

And although the Department of Justice's proposals for remedies have been undermined both by a misguided ruling from the D.C. Circuit appellate court (one which may yet be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court) and by political interference from high officials in the Bush Justice Department, the remedy proposals nonetheless do contain very instructive suggestions for how corporate behavior might be contained--if there was political will to do so.

The Department's filings make for gripping reading.

They allege that the industry conspiracy started "at the end of 1953, [when] the chief executives of the five major cigarette manufacturers in the United States at the time--Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard, and American--met at the Plaza Hotel in New York City with representatives of the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton and agreed to jointly conduct a long term public relations campaign to counter the growing evidence linking smoking as a cause of serious diseases.... The fraudulent scheme would continue for the next five decades."

The most publicized of the remedies sought by the government have to do with large dollar amounts. Most important is disgorgement of all profits generated by the industry since 1970 as a result of their unlawful activity--a claimed $280 billion. An appellate court ruling held that the disgorgement remedy was not available, but the Supreme Court may revisit the issue.

As the trial wound down in June, the biggest ticket item in the government's list of remedies was a $130 billion education and cessation program for smokers. Under pressure from a Bush administration appointee, the request was reduced to $10 billion.

There's no doubt the big money remedies are key to the case, especially because huge payments from the industry will increase cigarette prices and thereby reduce smoking rates.

But at least as interesting--and more instructive for generally controlling corporate activity--are the non-monetary demands of the industry.

Two in particular merit careful examination--and consideration of how they can be applied in other contexts.

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