Major tobacco companies that spent decades denying they lied to the US public about the dangers of cigarettes must spend their own money on a public advertising campaign saying they did lie, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday.
The ruling sets out what might be the harshest sanction to come out of a historic case that the US Department of Justice brought in 1999 accusing the tobacco companies of racketeering.
US District Judge Gladys Kessler wrote that the new advertising campaign would be an appropriate counterweight to the companies’ “past deception” dating from at least 1964.
The advertisements are to be published in various media for as long as two years.
Kessler’s ruling, which the companies could try to appeal, aims to finalize the wording of five different statements the companies will be required to use.
One of them begins: “A federal court has ruled that the defendant tobacco companies deliberately deceived the American public by falsely selling and advertising low tar and light cigarettes as less harmful than regular cigarettes.”
Another statement includes the wording: “Smoking kills, on average, 1,200 Americans. Every day.”
The wording was applauded by health advocates who have waited years for tangible results from the case.
The largest cigarette companies in the US spent US$8.05 billion in 2010 to advertise and promote their products, down from US$12.5 billion in 2006, according to a report issued in September by the US Federal Trade Commission. The major tobacco companies, which fought having to use words like “deceived” in the statements, citing concern for their rights of free speech, had a muted response
The justice department, which urged the strong language, was pleased with the ruling, a spokesman said.
Kessler’s ruling considered whether the advertising campaign — known as “corrective statements” — would violate the companies’ rights, given that the companies never agreed with her 2006 decision that they violated racketeering laws.
However, she concluded the statements were allowed because the final wording is “purely factual” and not controversial.
She likened the advertising campaign to other statements that US officials have forced wayward companies to make.
“The government regularly requires wrongdoers to make similar disclosures in a number of different contexts,” Kessler wrote.
Early in the long-running case, the justice department hoped to extract US$280 billion from the companies to pay for a smoking cessation program and other remedies.
It later dropped the demand to US$14 billion, and then Kessler ruled she could not force them to pay for such a program at all.
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