Opening Arguments Begin in $289 Billion Department of Justice Lawsuit Against Tobacco Companies
Attorneys for Department of Justice on Tuesday began opening arguments in a lawsuit filed over allegations that several of the largest U.S. tobacco companies violated a federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, the Washington Post reports. DOJ attorneys presented internal documents from the past several decades to demonstrate that the tobacco companies "privately acknowledged that smoking causes cancer and other diseases" and that they "began devising a coordinated public relations campaign to keep the public from believing there was a link" to protect "billions of dollars in profits," the Post reports (Leonnig, Washington Post, 9/22).
The lawsuit alleges that Brown & Williamson, Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard Tobacco and the Liggett Group misled consumers about the health risks of smoking and directed multibillion-dollar promotional campaigns at children. 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, presided by U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler, 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, 9/20).
DOJ accuses the tobacco companies of 145 acts of mail and wire fraud linked to advertisements, news releases and pamphlets distributed to the public. In five hours of opening arguments, DOJ attorney Sharon Eubanks presented about 100 of the more than 72,000 exhibits prepared for the case. Based on internal documents dated between the 1950s and the 1980s, Eubanks alleged that tobacco company officials and scientists "bluntly affirmed what they always disputed in public: that smoking and secondhand smoke were dangerous, that they targeted teens to replace smokers who quit or died, that nicotine was a drug and that they consciously designed their products to optimize its addictive power," the Los Angeles Times reports (Levin, Los Angeles Times, 9/22).
Eubanks said that the tobacco companies engaged in an "overarching scheme to defraud" that included denials of the addictiveness of nicotine, manipulation of nicotine levels in cigarettes to addict consumers, fraudulent promotion of "light" cigarettes as healthier than regular cigarettes and promotion of cigarettes to children, the Journal reports (Rayburn, Wall Street Journal, 9/22).
DOJ attorneys also said that although the tobacco companies established the Center for Tobacco Research and the Center for Indoor Air Research to conduct independent research, the groups were "really tools to thwart scientific findings about the harm of smoking and second-hand smoke," Cox/Lexington Herald-Leader reports (Dart, Cox/Lexington Herald-Leader, 9/22).
DOJ attorney Frank Marine said, "This case is about a 50-year pattern of material misrepresentations, half-truths, deceptions and flat-out lies by the defendants that continues to this day" (Janofsky, New York Times, 9/22). According to DOJ attorneys, they must only prove a past history of conspiracy that the tobacco companies could repeat to win the case (Washington Post, 9/22).
The tobacco companies in the case plan to present evidence to demonstrate that their practices did not constitute fraud (New York Times, 9/22).
Philip Morris attorney William Ohlemeyer said, "You can look at those documents and say maybe people made some mistakes, maybe they did some things they shouldn't have, but I don't think that shows intentional fraud. It's certainly not conduct the companies would tolerate today. But it doesn't prove what the government has to prove here. That's the big gap in the government's case. You heard a lot about the past. But the government has ignored the profound changes in the industry" (Washington Post, 9/22). He added, "We are prepared to offer a very detailed response" (New York Times, 9/22).
David Bernick, an attorney for Brown & Williamson, said that the DOJ case "blinks away the reality of the profound changes that have taken place both within the tobacco industry and in how tobacco is perceived by people outside the industry" (AP/Atlanta Journal Constitution, 9/22).
Several broadcast programs reported on the DOJ lawsuit:
- APM's "Marketplace Morning Report": The segment includes comments from Richard Daynard, director of the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University; Jeffrey Grell, an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School; and Phillip Morris attorney John Wunderly (Palmer, "Marketplace Morning Report," APM, 9/21). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- CBS' "Evening News": The segment includes comments from Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum and Ohlemeyer (Stewart, "Evening News," CBS, 9/21). A related CBS story is available online. The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NBC's "Nightly News": NBC's Pete Williams reports on the DOJ lawsuit (Williams, "Nightly News," NBC, 9/21). The complete segment is available online in Windows Media.
- NPR's "All Things Considered": NPR's Libby Lewis reports on the DOJ lawsuit (Lewis, "All Things Considered," NPR, 9/21). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "Morning Edition": The segment includes comments from McCallum and Ohlemeyer (Lewis, "Morning Edition," NPR, 9/21). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "Talk of the Nation": The segment will discuss the DOJ lawsuit and recent changes in the tobacco industry (Coleman, "Talk of the Nation," NPR, 9/22). The complete segment will be available online in RealPlayer after 6 p.m. ET.
- PBS' "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer": The segment includes an interview with Myron Levin, a Los Angeles Times staff writer who has reported on the DOJ lawsuit since 1999 (Suarez, "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," PBS, 9/21). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- PBS' "Nightly Business Report": The segment includes comments from Daniel Donahue, deputy general counsel for R.J. Reynolds; Martin Feldman, an analyst for Merrill Lynch who tracks the tobacco industry; and McCallum (Woods, "Nightly Business Report," PBS, 9/21). The complete transcript is available online.