Tobacco companies fighting over claims on smoking’s effects

The companies told a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that they’re ready and willing to pass along factual public health information about cigarettes, but said they won’t go along with being forced to underwrite an ad campaign that would have the companies brand themselves as liars.

The statements imply “that we’re still engaged in aspects of wrongdoing … (and) that we do things that we don’t do,” Miguel Estrada, an attorney representing the tobacco companies, told the panel.

In 2006, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the largest cigarette makers to publicly admit that they had lied for decades about the dangers of smoking. The ruling came after testimony from 162 witnesses, a nine-month bench trial and thousands of findings by the judge that defendants engaged in a massive campaign of fraud.

Kessler required the companies to publicly address smoking’s adverse health effects, nicotine manipulation and the health impact of secondhand smoke. The judge also required that the companies address the truth about “light” and “low tar” brands and the nature of cigarette addiction.

The companies in the case include Richmond, Virginia-based Altria Group Inc., owner of the biggest U.S. tobacco company, Philip Morris USA; No. 2 cigarette maker, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., owned by Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based Reynolds American Inc.; and No. 3 cigarette maker Lorillard Inc., based in Greensboro, North Carolina.

The preamble to the ads says a “federal court has ruled that Altria, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Lorillard and Philip Morris USA deliberately deceived the American public.”

The companies said the statement is overbroad and misleading. But the government’s attorney, Melissa Patterson, told the court that the preamble ensures that the statements that follow are “seen as the real truth,” saying the companies have a history of using tactics that raise questions about public health warnings about the dangers of smoking.

The statements the companies are being ordered to publish are based on the fact that the “fraud is likely to continue,” added Howard Crystal, an attorney representing public health interveners in the case.

The ads would be in all cigarette packs sold for 12 weeks over the course of two years, in TV spots once per week for a year, in a separate newspaper ad by each company, on company websites indefinitely and at certain retail outlets. They stem from a civil case the government brought in 1999 under RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

In 2009, the appeals court directed Kessler to craft corrective statements confined to purely factual and uncontroversial information that would reveal previously hidden truths about the tobacco industry’s products.

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