WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court dealt a blow to cigarette makers Friday by upholding a landmark 2006 legal ruling that the companies lied for decades about the dangers of smoking.
In a 93-page opinion, a three-judge panel cleared the way for new restrictions on how cigarette companies market and sell their products. Under the decision, the manufacturers will no longer be allowed to label brands “light” or “low tar,” and will have to purchase ads on television and in major newspapers that explain the health dangers and addictiveness of their products.
Tobacco companies indicated they will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, a process that would probably put compliance with the ruling on hold for at least several months.
The decision is the latest juncture in a legal odyssey that began when the Justice Department under President Bill Clinton filed a lawsuit in 1999 against nine cigarette makers and two tobacco-related trade groups. The government alleged that the companies and organizations conspired for decades to deceive Americans about the consequences of smoking.
The Justice Department issued a statement late Friday that called the decision “a victory for the American people.”
Chuck Connor, president and chief executive of the American Lung Association, said the decision “is almost everything we could have hoped for. It’s a very sweeping and tremendous indictment against the industry.”
Philip Morris USA and its parent company, Altria Group, issued a statement saying that the manufacturers “continue to believe that the court’s conclusions are not supported by the law or the evidence presented at trial, and we believe the exceptional importance of these issues justifies further review.”
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco issued a statement expressing disappointment in the decision. “R.J. Reynolds strongly believes that neither the evidence presented at trial nor the legal standards justify” the findings, said Martin Holton, a senior vice president and the general counsel at the company.
Friday’s ruling largely upheld a 1,653-page opinion issued by U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler that found the companies engaged in a massive civil racketeering scheme that defrauded the public about smoking’s hazards.
Kessler found that the companies “marketed and sold their lethal product with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted.”
The judge ordered the companies to stop delivering misleading or deceptive statements about smoking. And she directed them to strip marketing material and cigarette packaging of “low tar,” “light,” “ultra light,” “mild,” “natural” or any other term that may lead consumers to think the product is less hazardous than other brands. The industry had known for years, Kessler found, that consumers often smoked more “light” cigarettes to meet their nicotine needs.