Major cigarette makers in the United States are guilty of a decades-long conspiracy to deceive the public about the risks of smoking in order to sustain their profits, according to a court ruling.
But for anti-smoking groups that hoped the case would strike a major blow against the industry, the ruling in Washington by U.S. district judge Gladys Kessler appeared to be a largely moral victory, the Los Angeles Times reported on Friday.
In sharp contrast to her harsh remarks in the 1,653-page ruling, Kessler imposed only minor sanctions against the companies and no hard hits on their wallets.
The judge on Thursday blamed that over more than 50 years, tobacco makers "lied, misrepresented, and deceived the American public... about the devastating health effects of smoking and environmental tobacco smoke."
The judge prohibited the companies from committing any future frauds, and ordered them to issue a series of "corrective statements" through advertisements in major media outlets.
The statements must disclose the hazards and addictiveness of smoking, the lack of significant health benefits from smoking low-tar cigarettes, the companies' use of cigarette design to achieve optimum nicotine delivery, and the adverse effects of secondhand smoke.
The judge also barred cigarette makers from using terms such as "mild," "light" and "ultralight" in promotion, ruling that these words would falsely imply that the cigarettes were less harmful. Kessler also ordered the defendants to pay the government's legal costs of hundreds of millions of dollars.
But she said that she "unfortunately" could not order the multi-billion-dollar remedies sought by U.S. Justice Department and tobacco control groups to help addicted smokers quit, counter-advertising campaigns, and fines if youth smoking doesn't drop by targeted amounts.
Industry leader Philip Morris announced late Thursday that they would appeal the ruling, which they said was "not supported by the law or the evidence presented at trial." Found liable along were R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, Lorillard Tobacco and British American Tobacco.
Filed in September 1999, the lawsuit was the largest civil racketeering suit in history and culminated in a nine-month trial that ended in June 2005.
U.S. Justice Department said in a brief statement that it was " pleased with the court's finding of liability...but disappointed that the court did not impose all of the remedies sought by the government."
The fact that a federal court found that cigarette makers are racketeers could weaken the industry's defense in dozens of other tobacco suits around the United States, said anti-tobacco activists, who are not yet fully satisfied with this ruling.
William Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, was quoted as calling it "a very important decision because judge Kessler has found that we've got a rogue industry in this country."
But he admitted being "deeply disappointed" that the judge felt constrained "by misguided appellate court rulings."