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Cigarette Makers: They Deceived the Public for Years

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

A federal judge ruled today that major cigarette makers engaged in a 50-year conspiracy to deceive the public about the dangers of smoking. Judge Gladys Kessler imposed new restrictions on the industry, including that they stop marketing cigarettes as light or low tar.

NPR's Libby Lewis joins us to talk about the case. And Libby, tell us what Judge Kessler had to say about this conspiracy.

LIBBY LEWIS reporting:

Well, she took 1700 pages to say that the tobacco industry has engaged in a conspiracy for decades to defraud or deceive the public about the dangers of smoking. She had some pretty strong language. She said over the course of more than 50 years, she wrote, defendants lied, misrepresented and deceived the American public, including young people, about the devastating health effects of smoking.

She wrote, they suppress research, they destroyed documents, they destroyed the truth and they abused the legal system. She went into great detail about the history and the manner and means in which she believes they did that.

BLOCK: What penalties did Judge Kessler impose on the tobacco industry in this ruling today?

LEWIS: Well, that's what's so interesting. There all of this passionate language, and not so much of a bite. Judge Kessler, when you boil it all down, she did not assess any financial penalties on the industry at all. She gave only part of the wish list of the government and the anti-tobacco community for what they felt the industry owed the public for their behavior over the past 50 years.

She did order the industry to stop using the terms light or low tar. Those terms are meant to suggest that the products that use them are safer, and the evidence, she says, is clear that they're not and that they are used to deceive smokers. So she ordered them to stop using that language.

But she did not order the companies to fund money for stop smoking programs or the education programs like the ones we've heard about from the American Legacy Foundation that work to persuade young people not to take up smoking.

BLOCK: And those programs were what the government had wanted the judge to impose.

LEWIS: They're actually, some of them were programs the government wanted them to impose, but some of them were programs the anti-tobacco community came in and told the judge, the public needs these as well.

BLOCK: Libby, this case has been kicking around in the courts for a number of years now. Remind us how the case came about and how the litigation has evolved over the years.

LEWIS: Yeah, it's a very interesting history. This case was filed in 1999. This was an era when the states were suing the tobacco companies, and the tobacco industry reached a settlement with many of the states in 1998, which was a multibillion dollar settlement. And the federal government filed its lawsuit soon thereafter using the federal racketeering statue, which was designed to go after organized crime.

BLOCK: Has there been reaction to Judge Kessler's ruling today, either from the government or from the tobacco companies or from anti-smoking groups?

LEWIS: Yes, a statement from R.J. Reynolds says that the company is deeply gratified that the judge chose not to impose any financial penalties. The Department of Justice says that it's happy for Judge Kessler's ruling that the industry violated the racketeering statue, but it's disappointed that she did not order the companies to pay for education programs and stop smoking programs.

Some of the anti-tobacco groups say they're also deeply disappointed. They're trying to find the silver lining and say that Judge Kessler's ruling provides a good foundation for individuals who wanna go into court and sue the companies.

BLOCK: NPR's Libby Lewis. Thanks a lot.

LEWIS: You're welcome, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Libby Lewis
Libby Lewis is an award-winning reporter on the National Desk whose pieces on issues of law, society, criminal justice, the military and social policy can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Day to Day, Weekend Edition Saturday, and other NPR shows.