Tobacco Companies Release Mea Culpa Ads
By Sean Lally, Staff Writer
Almost two decades ago, the United States Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the Tobacco industry, using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) as its legal weapon. This marked one of the largest racketeering cases in US history. In some sense, the matter has remained open – until recently, that is. As ordered by the court, the Tobacco industry has started to release a series of ads that amount to a mea culpa, or admission of responsibility, for misleading the American public with regard to the health effects of smoking.
In the original case, the DOJ made seven claims against the industry, arguing that they had deceived the public with regard to the health risks of smoking and second-hand smoke; that they had misled the public about the addictive properties of nicotine; that they labeled certain cigarettes, low tar, knowing full well that those cigarettes were just as dangerous as others; that they engineered cigarettes to deliver nicotine in a particular way; that they focused on youth in their marketing campaign; and that they failed to actually create a less hazardous cigarette.
After several years of court orders and argumentation, on August 17th of 2006, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler delivered an opinion of epic proportions in a document reaching 1,683 pages. Ultimately the opinion boiled down to this: “As set forth in these Final Proposed Findings of Fact, substantial evidence establishes that Defendants have engaged in and executed – and continue to engage in and execute – a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public, including consumers of cigarettes, in violation of RICO.” That ruling was mostly upheld by an appeals court.
Due to legal restrictions in RICO, Kessler could not order monetary retribution for profits garnered illegally. In that sense, the DOJ failed to win a sought-after $280 billion in penalties, but the companies were forced to forfeit millions in court-related fees. The US Government also succeeded in forcing the industry to out itself as a virtual criminal organization responsible for one of the largest deceptions in American history. To that end, Kessler ordered the industry – including major players like Philip Morris – to release corrective statements regarding their deceptive marketing and manufacturing practices.
Ten Long Years
For the past decade or so, the Tobacco industry has fought the court order, nitpicking about every detail of the mandated statements. For instance, the companies have demanded that the words “Here is the truth” be stricken. Nonetheless, the ads contain admissions that cigarettes kill over a thousand people every day, that they purposefully made cigarettes addictive, that cigarettes cause a whole array of illnesses, that low tar cigarettes are not less hazardous and that nicotine changes a person’s brain chemistry, to name a few of the statements.
As noted by The Guardian, the tobacco giants will not be required to post ads on the internet where nearly 40 percent of Americans get their news. According to Stan Gantz, the companies have employed a strategy of delay, resulting in a somewhat anemic mea culpa: “They have used a lot of arguing about what in terms of the real world are trivial issues, to delay having to make these statements for 11 years – but it is what the tobacco companies do.” He added, “The problem is the technology has moved on, and the statements are not in social media because it didn’t really exist back then. But better late than never.”
Despite this underhanded strategy, the companies will be releasing one ad per month (for five months) in over 50 newspapers throughout the nation. They will also be running ads five times per week on major television networks (NBC, CBS and ABC) for one whole year.
The release of these ads is bitter sweet. On the one hand, it marks the arrival of a long overdue admission-of-guilt from one of the nation’s largest industries. On the other hand, it overshadows the fact that the tobacco industry is still up to its old tricks. As pointed out by Jim Knox at the Sacramento Bee, the Tobacco industry recently failed to lobby against a tobacco tax increase in California, wasting nearly $70 million in the process. And in San Francisco, RJ Reynolds has fought tooth-and-nail to undermine a statute meant to reduce smoking, spending nearly $1 million to alter the ballot in 2018.
480,000 people die each year due to illnesses caused, at least in part, by tobacco use. Needless to say, the damage has been overwhelming. An “I’m sorry” from Big Tobacco might be too little too late for millions of Americans.