Federal Judge Hears Summaries From Attorneys in Department of Justice Lawsuit Against Tobacco Companies
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler on Thursday heard two 90-minute interim summaries from the Department of Justice and lawyers representing the tobacco industry in a $280 billion racketeering lawsuit, the New York Times reports. According to the Times, "the exercise was entirely for the benefit of the judge" (Janofsky, New York Times, 11/19).
The lawsuit alleges that Brown & Williamson, Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard Tobacco and the Liggett Group violated the civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act by misleading consumers about the health risks of smoking and directing multibillion-dollar promotional campaigns at children. The DOJ made the allegations as part of a larger federal lawsuit first filed by the Clinton administration in 1999 that accuses the tobacco industry of conspiracy to mislead consumers about the dangers of smoking.
The lawsuit seeks $280 billion in past profits, which represents revenues from sales to smokers younger than age 21 between 1971 and 2000, as well as interest. In addition, the lawsuit seeks $9 billion to pay for smoking-cessation programs and research into safer cigarettes. The trial began Sept. 21 and likely will last at least six months, with 100 witnesses expected to testify in person and 200 others to testify through depositions or testimony in other trials (California Healthline, 11/18).
DOJ attorney Stephen Brody presented the "seven pillars of fraud" allegedly committed by the tobacco industry: denying the harmful health effects of smoking; promoting industry-financed "independent research"; denying the addictiveness of smoking; denying that nicotine levels were manipulated in cigarettes; promoting "less-hazardous" cigarettes, even when scientific evidence does not support that claim; marketing to children as young as 12; and suppressing evidence to prevent documents from being viewed publicly and during litigation, the Times reports.
Brody cited testimony from witnesses who said the industry had concealed information on the health effects of cigarettes in smokers and those affected by secondhand smoke (New York Times, 11/19). Brody also said that the industry's pledge in 1953 to finance research into "all phases of tobaccos use and health" was a "crusade for profits on the sale of cigarettes," adding that the industry funded research into diseases but not links between diseases and smoking (AP/Raleigh News & Observer, 11/19).
Brown and Williamson attorney David Bernick said the government's arguments lacked focus and "a consistent and sustainable theory of fraud" (New York Times, 11/19). He argued that the public was never convinced of tobacco industry statements that there was no link between smoking and cancer and therefore was never defrauded. Bernick noted a decline in smoking rates following a 1964 surgeon general's report linking smoking and cancer (AP/Raleigh News & Observer, 11/19).
Philip Morris lawyer Dan Webb added that evidence showing the harmful effects of secondhand smoke is inconclusive. He said the accusation is DOJ's "lifeboat to carry [it] across the victory line." He added, "What the government is doing is fraud. I crumbled that pillar of fraud" (New York Times, 11/19).
According to the AP/News & Observer, Kessler "seemed sympathetic" and noted that companies are restricted by the government from making health claims and consumers have not always found less hazardous cigarettes acceptable.
She also questioned how the industry could maintain its position in denying the health risks of smoking if the public was convinced smoking caused cancer. "How can you have it both ways?" she asked (AP/Raleigh News & Observer, 11/19).