Tobacco companies are a step closer to putting out "corrective statements" about their history of defrauding the American public by hiding the dangers of smoking, according to an agreementreached Friday with the Department of Justice.
The agreement was reached the day before the 50th anniversary of the surgeon general warning on tobacco and lung cancer, released Jan. 11, 1964.
The long-awaited advertising campaign was ordered in 2006 by U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler, who found tobacco companies guilty of violating civil racketeering laws and lying to the public about the dangers of smoking and their marketing to children. Kessler must approve the agreement.
That verdict was the culmination of a lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice in 1999, when it sued tobacco companies under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).
Kessler made five key "findings of fact," detailing how tobacco makers defrauded the public, including lying about the health damage caused by smoking; the addictive nature of nicotine; their marketing and promotion of "low tar" and "light" cigarettes as healthier when there are no clear health benefits; designing tobacco products to be as addictive as possible; and engaging in a massive effort to hide the dangers of secondhand smoke. The corrective statements must address each of these five areas.
Kessler found that the RICO statute did not allow for monetary damages, but she ordered tobacco companies to make "corrective statements" about their history of fraud.
According to the agreement, the campaign will include online and full-page print ads in the Sunday editions of the top 35 newspapers in the country, including USA TODAY, as well as prime-time TV spots on the three major networks for one year. The corrective statements also must be attached to packages of cigarettes in what marketers call an "outsert."
Spokesmen for the leading tobacco companies — Philip Morris USA and RJ Reynolds Tobacco — declined to comment.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has rejected two industry appeals. Tobacco companies are suing over Kessler's order to include the corrective statements in "point of sale" displays at retail stores.
In a statement, leading anti-smoking groups said, "Tobacco companies have filed time-consuming appeals at every stage. ... We urge them to end their delay tactics and finally tell the truth." The statement was signed by the Tobacco-Free Kids Action Fund, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights and the National African-American Tobacco Prevention Network. The groups joined the case as interveners in 2005.
The corrective statements "are necessary reminders that tobacco's devastating toll over the past 50-plus years is no accident," the group statement says. "It stems directly from the tobacco industry's deceptive and even illegal practices."
Stanton Glantz, a professor at the University of California-San Francisco, says it's too early to know if this agreement will change anything.
"If the tobacco companies accept the corrective statements Judge Kessler has ordered and move forward, this could be a big step forward," says Glantz, co-author of a book about the court case, called Bad Acts. "If, on the other hand, the tobacco companies appeal the corrective statements -- something the draft order explicitly allows them to do -- it will be more years before anything actually happens."
In her 2006 verdict, Kessler described the tobacco industry as one 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. ... (Tobacco companies) have consistently, repeatedly and with enormous skill and sophistication, denied these facts to the public."