After years of lying, are tobacco companies now going to tell the truth? Time will tell whether the recent court order from U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler will finally force the tobacco companies to admit they deliberately deceived the American public.
In and of itself, the judge's ruling is an astounding document. Tobacco companies must now issue corrective statements about their deception through newspaper and television advertising, on the companies' websites and on cigarette packaging. Each corrective statement must begin with this sentence: "A Federal Court has ruled that the defendant tobacco companies deliberately deceived the American public."
The required factual statements are strong and clear. They include, among others:
*"Smoking kills, on average, 1,200 Americans every day."
*"Cigarette companies intentionally designed cigarettes with enough nicotine to create and sustain addiction."
*"More people die every year from smoking than from murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes and alcohol, combined."
These are the facts. Here is another. The tobacco companies have long fought this legal action in the courts. The case began in 1999 and was decided in 2006 when Kessler found the tobacco companies guilty of violating civil racketeering laws. The judge was quoted at the time as saying, "Defendants have engaged in and executed a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public, including consumers of cigarettes …"
Big Tobacco's resistance to the truth is well-known. In 1954, Philip Morris co-sponsored ads in major U.S. newspapers promising that its cigarettes were safe. (They weren't.) In 1972, Philip Morris executives said, "if our product is harmful, we will stop making it." (They didn't.) More recently, in 2000, the company clarified a website statement regarding smoking and addiction, saying it should not be considered " … a public admission that cigarettes cause illness. It does not." (We all know cigarettes do cause disease.) Tobacco companies have for decades lied about their products and the consequences of using tobacco.
While the courts and tobacco companies continue to slug it out, in Western New York, we have taken matters into our own hands and are making progress. Communities are adopting smoke-free parks policies and property owners are declaring their apartments smoke-free. Every day, the New York State Smokers' Quitline, located at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, is helping people break their addiction to tobacco. Yet there is more to be done. We can urge our local municipalities to use their authority to reduce tobacco marketing in local stores and prohibit the sale of tobacco in pharmacies. We will not be fooled by tobacco lies.
Andrew Hyland, Ph.D., is chairman of the Department of Health Behavior at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.