Here’s What it Looks Like When a Tobacco Company Says ‘I’m Sorry’

Get ready for a full-page New York Times ad-apology from tobacco companies.

National Journal
Clara Ritger
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Clara Ritger
Jan. 13, 2014, 8:11 a.m.

After 15 years of fight­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment over lies to the pub­lic about the health risks of smoking, the na­tion’s biggest to­bacco com­pan­ies are ready to apo­lo­gize.

Philip Mor­ris USA, R.J. Reyn­olds, Lor­il­lard, and Al­tria are pre­par­ing full-page ads to run in the Sunday edi­tions of the coun­try’s top 35 news­pa­pers, as well as on­line ads for those pa­pers’ web­sites and prime-time tele­vi­sion spots to run for a full year on CBS, ABC, and NBC. The cor­por­a­tions are also re­quired to run cor­rect­ive state­ments on their web­sites and ci­gar­ette pack­ages.

The self-fla­gel­la­tion stems from a 2006 fed­er­al court de­cision or­der­ing the to­bacco com­pan­ies to cor­rect the re­cord on state­ments they made about the health ef­fects of smoking. On Fri­day, the com­pan­ies’ law­yers and the Justice De­part­ment struck a deal on how they will is­sue the apo­logy.

A mock-up of an ad­vert­ise­ment that could pub­lish as a full-page ad in The New York Times reads, “A Fed­er­al Court has ruled that Philip Mor­ris USA, R.J. Reyn­olds To­bacco, Lor­il­lard, and Al­tria de­lib­er­ately de­ceived the Amer­ic­an pub­lic about design­ing ci­gar­ettes to en­hance the de­liv­ery of nicot­ine and has ordered those com­pan­ies to make this state­ment.”

It goes on to say that the in­dustry “in­ten­tion­ally de­signed ci­gar­ettes to make them more ad­dict­ive,” and that nicot­ine “changes the brain,” mak­ing it harder to quit.

The to­bacco com­pan­ies could ap­peal the lan­guage of the ads. But first, U.S. Dis­trict Judge Gladys Kessler is sched­uled to re­view the agree­ment about how to is­sue the cor­rect­ive state­ments on Wed­nes­day, Jan. 22, at 10 a.m. in Courtroom 26A of the U.S. Dis­trict Court of D.C.

The Justice De­part­ment first brought the case against the to­bacco in­dustry in 1999, ar­guing that they know­ingly and in­ten­tion­ally mis­in­formed the pub­lic about the neg­at­ive health con­sequences of smoking.

Kessler ordered the in­dustry in 2006 to is­sue the state­ments after she found them guilty of vi­ol­at­ing civil rack­et­eer­ing laws and ly­ing to the pub­lic about the dangers of smoking.

The judge re­quired the state­ments to ap­pear on tele­vi­sion and in news­pa­pers, as well as on the com­pan­ies’ web­sites and ci­gar­ette pack­ages, and to con­tain lan­guage that the court had ruled that the com­pan­ies “de­lib­er­ately de­ceived the Amer­ic­an pub­lic.”

In find­ing the in­dustry guilty, Kessler wrote, “[This case] is about an in­dustry, and in par­tic­u­lar these De­fend­ants, 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. De­fend­ants have known many of these facts for at least 50 years or more. Des­pite that know­ledge, they have con­sist­ently, re­peatedly and with enorm­ous skill and soph­ist­ic­a­tion, denied these facts to the pub­lic, the Gov­ern­ment, and to the pub­lic health com­munity.”

Philip Mor­ris de­clined to of­fer a com­ment for the story.

The state­ments would cor­rect mis­in­form­a­tion about “the health ef­fects of smoking, the ad­dict­ive­ness of smoking and nicot­ine, the false ad­vert­ising of low-tar and light ci­gar­ettes as less harm­ful than reg­u­lar ci­gar­ettes, the design­ing of ci­gar­ettes to en­hance the de­liv­ery of nicot­ine and the health ef­fects of second­hand smoke,” ac­cord­ing to a press re­lease from the Amer­ic­an Can­cer So­ci­ety Ac­tion Net­work, one of the pub­lic in­ter­ven­ors that joined the case in 2005. The oth­er na­tion­al med­ic­al and ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tions that joined the case are the Amer­ic­an Heart As­so­ci­ation, the Amer­ic­an Lung As­so­ci­ation, Amer­ic­ans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, the Na­tion­al Afric­an Amer­ic­an To­bacco Pre­ven­tion Net­work and the To­bacco-Free Kids Ac­tion Fund.

AC­SCAN’s as­so­ci­ate dir­ect­or of fed­er­al re­la­tions, Gregg Haif­ley, called the case “a long leg­al battle” that has been “dragged out” by the in­dustry.

“Mil­lions of people who oth­er­wise might have quit con­tin­ued smoking be­cause of blatant mis­rep­res­ent­a­tions of the harm to their health,” Haif­ley said. “The to­bacco in­dustry is an in­dustry that nev­er gives up. But we’re one step closer to a fi­nal con­clu­sion.”

The agree­ment falls on the 50th an­niversary of the sur­geon gen­er­al’s first re­port de­tail­ing the pub­lic-health con­sequences of smoking. The land­mark study promp­ted an­t­i­s­moking groups to pur­sue more-strin­gent pub­lic policy meas­ures reg­u­lat­ing the use of to­bacco, which res­ul­ted in 8 mil­lion lives saved since 1964, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished last week in the Journ­al of the Amer­ic­an Med­ic­al As­so­ci­ation.

Roughly 44 mil­lion adults and 3.6 mil­lion chil­dren in the United States smoke, ac­cord­ing to num­bers from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion. Smoking costs the U.S. roughly $193 bil­lion an­nu­ally in health care ex­pendit­ures and lost pro­ductiv­ity, the CDC re­ports. Each year, an es­tim­ated 443,000 people die pre­ma­turely from a smoking-re­lated dis­ease.

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