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Federal Judge Orders Tobacco Companies to Stop Deceiving Foreign Consumers As Well as Those in U.S.

Statement of William V. Corr Executive Director, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
March 16, 2007

Washington, DC — Ruling in the U.S. government’s racketeering lawsuit against tobacco companies, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler today struck an important blow for global health by ordering the tobacco company defendants to stop using misleading cigarette marketing terms like “light” and “low-tar” not only in the United States, but internationally as well. This ruling applies to defendants in the case including Philip Morris USA, Altria, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard and British American Tobacco.

Judge Kessler today also rejected the tobacco companies’ claim that they did not understand her general prohibition on making “any material false, misleading or deceptive statement or misrepresentation” in the future. She found that the evidence of wrongdoing in the case is so extensive and clear that the defendants should know which illegal conduct is prohibited. Only tobacco companies would have the audacity to argue that they don’t understand a judge’s order to tell the truth.

On August 17, 2006, Judge Kessler issued a final verdict finding that the tobacco companies had engaged in massive wrongdoing and violated civil racketeering (RICO) laws by lying for decades about the health risks of their products and their marketing to children. As one of her remedies, Judge Kessler prohibited the tobacco companies from continuing to use deceptive terms like “light” and “low-tar.” The tobacco companies subsequently asked her to allow them to continue using these misleading terms outside the United States, essentially a request to continue to deceive their international customers. Today, Judge Kessler decisively and appropriately rejected this absurd request that could only come from an industry that survives on deception.

Judge Kessler wrote: “To rule otherwise would not only frustrate the salutary anti-fraud principles embodied in RICO, but would also allow the Defendants to spread fraudulent and misleading health messages and descriptors about their products throughout the world, even though they are prohibited from doing so in the United States. The Court sees no justification, either legal or ethical, for concluding that Congress intended to allow Defendants to continue to tell the rest of the world that “low tar/light” cigarettes are less harmful to health when they are prohibited from making such fraudulent misrepresentation to the American public.”

Today’s ruling rightly recognizes that tobacco companies should not be allowed to deceive consumers about their deadly and addictive products anywhere in the world. It provides important reinforcement for efforts to reduce tobacco use worldwide and for effective implementation of the international tobacco control treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Among its provisions, the treaty calls on ratifying nations to ban misleading terms such as “light” and “low-tar.”

When she issued her verdict against the tobacco companies last August, Judge Kessler found that “Defendants falsely marketed and promoted “low tar” and “light” cigarettes as less harmful than full-flavor cigarettes in order to keep people smoking and sustain corporate revenues” and “despite their internal knowledge, Defendants’ marketing and public statements about low tar cigarettes continue to suggest that they are less harmful than full-flavor cigarettes.”

Today’s ruling underscores the potential of this case, brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, to fundamentally change the tobacco industry’s harmful practices and save lives. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has stayed Judge Kessler’s ruling and order as the case is appealed by the tobacco company defendants, the Justice Department and the public health organizations that were allowed to intervene in the case. Today’s ruling shows why it is so important that the Justice Department aggressively defend Judge Kessler’s ruling and remedies while also seeking stronger remedies that Judge Kessler felt she could not impose because of a controversial appeals court ruling. The Justice Department should seek to have that controversial ruling overturned so it can seek even stronger remedies that include adequate funding for programs to prevent children from starting to smoke and help the many smokers deceived by the tobacco companies to quit.