Anti-tobacco ads a long time coming

Starting Nov. 26, the major U.S. tobacco companies have to run ads in local and national media sources telling the American people the truth about the deadly consequences of smoking and secondhand smoke.

A federal court in 2006 ordered the companies to make these “corrective statements” after finding them guilty of breaking civil racketeering laws and lying to the public about the dangers of smoking and how they marketed to children. The ads will finally run after 11 years of appeals by the tobacco companies aimed at weakening and delaying the statements. They even fought (successfully) to remove the phrase “here is the truth” from the corrective statements, which would have highlighted the fact that the industry deliberately deceived the public.

Public health advocates in Michigan welcome the corrective statement ads because they will focus attention on the enormous public health problem caused by tobacco use and the need for strong action to save lives. To reduce tobacco use, advocates are calling state/city officials to raise the sale age of tobacco products to 21, pass a comprehensive smoke-free law, increase the state’s tobacco tax by $1.50 per pack and increase funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

“These ads serve as a reminder that tobacco’s terrible toll is no accident. It is caused directly by the deceptive and even illegal practices of the tobacco industry,” said Kelly Hansen, a health educator. “These ads should inspire our elected officials to stand up to the tobacco industry and take strong corrective action to reduce tobacco use and save lives in Michigan.”

In Michigan alone, over 10 percent of high school students still smoke, and 5,200 kids become regular smokers each year. Tobacco use claims over 16,000 Michigan lives and costs the state $4.6 billion in health care bills annually.

“The tobacco industry has long profited from deceptively promoting products that lead to disease, death and economic hardship,” said Hansen. “In Michigan, tobacco companies spend $295 million yearly to market cigarettes and other tobacco products to young adults. Not surprisingly, nine out of 10 tobacco users start before the age of 18. We’re hopeful these corrective statements will shine the light on the tobacco industry’s decades-long deceit and encourage political leaders to enact policies to help bring about the first tobacco-free generation.”

In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the major cigarette manufacturers, charging they had violated the civil provisions of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and other laws. Tobacco company defendants in the case include Altria, Philip Morris’ USA subsidiary and R.J. Reynolds.

On Aug. 17, 2006, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler issued her verdict against the companies. In a 1,683-page final opinion, she detailed how the tobacco companies “have marketed and sold their lethal products with zeal, with deception, with a singled-minded focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted.” Importantly, Judge Kessler concluded, “The evidence in this case clearly establishes that Defendants have not ceased engaging in unlawful activity.”

Judge Kessler ordered the tobacco companies to publish corrective statements on five topics about which they had deliberately deceived the public:

– the adverse health effects of smoking;

– addictiveness of smoking and nicotine;

– lack of significant health benefit from smoking “low tar,” “light,” “ultra light,” “mild” and “natural” cigarettes (products that have been deceptively marketed as less harmful than regular cigarettes);

– manipulation of cigarette design and composition to ensure optimum nicotine delivery; and

– adverse health effects of exposure to secondhand smoke.

Despite significant progress in reducing smoking, tobacco use is still the leading preventable cause of death and disease in the United States, killing more than 480,000 Americans and costing the nation about $170 billion in health care expenses each year.