Judge to Tobacco Companies: Pay for Ads About Your Past Lies

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Nov. 30 2012 12:18 PM

Lies and the Lying Tobacco Company Liars Who Told Them

A judge orders ads correcting past deception about the dangers of smoking.

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Will you be seeing tobacco company CEOs on your television admitting to lying during the commercial breaks of A Charlie Brown Christmas? Not quite.

Photograph by Eric Feferberg/AFP/GettyImages.

It’s pretty well established that the big tobacco companies have not always been entirely honest with the American public about the dangers of smoking. Now, a federal judge has said that they will have to pay for television, online, and print advertisements that will say the companies downright lied to the public about smoking’s health effects.

The ruling stemmed from a case the Department of Justice brought back in 1999 against the tobacco companies, for conspiring in a “scheme to defraud smokers and potential smokers,” by misleading the public about the addictive nature of cigarettes and the diseases that they can cause. The case went to trial in 2004, and Judge Gladys Kessler ruled against the tobacco companies two years later, ordering, among other things, that the companies would have to pay to correct the misleading record they’d built, because they broke federal anti-racketeering laws.

Since then, the case has gone through six years of appeals and arguments over what exactly the statements should say. The tobacco companies resisted what they called “forced public confessions,” claiming that the order violated their First Amendment rights. This week, Judge Kessler rejected those arguments. And so, every tobacco-paid ad will begin by saying that a federal court found that the companies “deliberately deceived the American public.” The statements go on to cover the dangers of smoking, the addictive nature of nicotine, the equally dangerous effects of low-tar and light cigarettes, the companies’ efforts to make cigarettes more addictive, and the harm caused by secondhand smoke. Some of the facts that will be included in the statements include:

  • More people die every year from smoking than from murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes, and alcohol, combined.
  • Smoking causes heart disease, emphysema, acute myeloid leukemia, and cancer of the mouth, esophagus, larynx, lung, stomach, kidney, bladder, and pancreas.
  • Defendant tobacco companies intentionally designed cigarettes to make them more addictive.
  • Secondhand smoke kills over 3,000 Americans each year.
  • Children exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), acute respiratory infections, ear problems, severe asthma, and reduced lung function.

Now that the exact wording is settled, will you be seeing tobacco company CEOs on your television admitting to lying during the commercial breaks of A Charlie Brown Christmas? Not quite. The original 2006 order required the statements to be published on corporate websites as well as in full-page ads in major newspapers and ads on major television networks. Those venues are now being re-evaluated, however, because the state of media and advertising has changed so drastically in just the past six years. It will be another few months before we know where the undoing-the-lie ads will appear. 

Skye Nickalls is a recent graduate of Yale Law School.