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Tobacco Industry Racketeers under Court Order to Tell the Truth

(November 30, 2017)

More than 11 years after a federal court first ordered them to do so, and 18 years after the case began, the major tobacco companies must finally begin publishing court-ordered "corrective statement" advertisements telling the American people the truth about their deadly and addictive products. On Sunday, November 26, full-page ads began running in 50 different newspapers across the country, and on Monday, November 27, 30-second ads started airing on television. Later, the statements will also appear on the companies' websites and on cigarette pack onserts (ads attached to the package). The ads will run in phases, as ordered by the court, over the course of a year.

How did we get to this historic moment of truth from the historically untruthful tobacco industry? It's a story worthy of a TV courtroom drama, and the American Lung Association played a significant part. It's also important to make one thing clear—the tobacco companies are not making this very public confession voluntarily or as part of a legal settlement. The court ordered them to take this action because they were convicted of racketeering, and are under a court order to tell the public they lied.

The corrective statements stem from a historic Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) lawsuit filed by the Justice Department in 1999 and a landmark judgment issued in August 2006 by U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler. Kessler found the major tobacco companiesincluding Altria (Philip Morris) and RJ Reynoldsguilty of organized criminal activity, also called civil racketeering.  On August 17, 2006, she issued a final judgment in a 1,683-page opinion that found the companies had been covering up the health risks associated with smoking and marketing their products to children for decades.

Years before, executives from the tobacco industry stood before a congressional hearing and swore under oath that nicotine was not addictive. Judge Kessler's ruling detailed a decades-long, industrywide, organized plan to deceive the public by denying science, marketing their products to children and making false health claims about their products. Among scores of troubling facts, the ruling's findings included:

  • The tobacco companies "Concealed and Suppressed Research Data and Other Evidence that Nicotine Is Addictive."
  • The tobacco companies "Falsely Marketed and Promoted Low Tar/Light Cigarettes as Less Harmful than Full-Flavor Cigarettes in Order to Keep People Smoking and Sustain Corporate Revenues."
  • The tobacco companies "Have Publicly Denied What They Internally Acknowledged: that ETS (emitted tobacco smoke - secondhand smoke) Is Hazardous to Nonsmokers."
  • The tobacco companies' "Marketing Is a Substantial Contributing Factor to Youth Smoking Initiation."

As a result, the verdict (which was later upheld by a federal court of appeals) was final, ruling that: "The major cigarette manufacturers are racketeers who carried out a decades-long conspiracy to deceive the American public and target children with their deadly and addictive products."

The legal remedies recommended by Judge Kessler included:

  • Prohibiting the tobacco companies from committing acts of racketeering in the future or making false or deceptive health claims about their products.
  • Prohibiting terms including "low tar," "light" and "mild" that have been used to mislead consumers about the health risks of smoking.
  • Requiring the tobacco companies to make corrective statements through newspaper and television advertising, their websites and as part of cigarette packaging that makes clear their deceptive practices and misinformation regarding the health risks of smoking and secondhand smoke.

In 2005, the American Lung Association and five other public health organizations asked Judge Kessler to be named plaintiff-intervenors after the Department of Justice appeared to interfere with the important remedies phase of the lawsuit, a request that was granted.   As plaintiff-intervenors, our organizations continue our responsibilities of representing the health of the American public before the court—even 11 years later.

Why did it take 11 years? Because, the tobacco industry has never stopped fighting those corrective actions, including the corrective statements.  They have also continued their dirty tricks, but with a different set of products, many (like candy-flavored cigars) made to attract kids. Today, the tobacco industry is continuing to market to and addict young people to a wide variety of products, including cigars, e-cigarettes, pipe tobacco and hookah—each of which carries health risks.

These corrective statements are an important step forward, but our work is far from over. Despite considerable progress in reducing smoking, tobacco use is still the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States, killing more than 480,000 Americans and costing the nation about $170 billion in healthcare expenses each year. We will not rest until tobacco use and its crushing toll are a distant memory.

Take action: Join our Lung Action Network so you can be on the front lines of protecting our kids and the public health from tobacco's dirty tricks. 

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