Case against the tobacco industry

Saturday June 29 2019


By Dr Sylvester Onzivua

On September 22, 1999, the US Department of Justice brought a law suit against the tobacco industry. The main issue was that the tobacco companies had, over a significant period of time conspired to fraudulently deceive people about the health effects of smoking and environmental tobacco smoke, the addictiveness of nicotine, the health benefits from low tar, light cigarettes, and their manipulation of the design and composition of cigarettes in order to sustain nicotine addiction.

According to the complaint, the tobacco companies deliberately sought to deny that smoking caused disease and to maintain that there was no scientific consensus on the subject. The tobacco companies were also accused of issuing deceptive press releases, publishing false and misleading articles, destroying and concealing documents which indicated that there was in fact a correlation between smoking and disease, and aggressively targeting children as potential new smokers.
The lawsuit sought to recover health care expenditures the government had paid and would have to pay to treat tobacco-related illness as a result of the tobacco companies’ unlawful actions. The government also sought monetary damage. Additionally, the government requested injunctions to prevent the tobacco companies from engaging in further fraud. Several public health groups joined the lawsuit to assert their interests in the proposed relief.

On August 17, 2006, the court issued a landmark ruling, holding the tobacco companies liable for conspiracy and fraudulently covering up the health risks associated with cigarettes and for marketing their products to children.

Court found that the only way to restrain the tobacco companies from their long standing and continuing fraudulent efforts to deceive smokers, potential smokers and the public was to prohibit them from using descriptions such as low tar, mild, medium or ultra-light cigarettes which created the false impression that such cigarettes were less harmful to smokers.
Court also established that the tobacco companies made false, deceptive, and misleading public statements about cigarettes and as a result of these, court ordered the tobacco companies to issue corrective statements and also restrained them from making further fraudulent public statements on smoking and health matters in the future.

The tobacco companies were ordered to publish these statements in newspapers and disseminate them through television, advertisements and on their corporate websites. The specific language of these statements was not included in the ruling, but the companies were to submit proposals for approval by the court. The statements were to be confined to purely factual and uncontroversial information, intended to thwart efforts to either directly mislead consumers or capitalize on prior deceptions by continuing to advertise in a manner that builds on consumers’ existing misperceptions.

In 2012 court released specific language for language for the five corrective statements based on proposals submitted by all parties. The companies, however, challenged the language proposed by the court, claiming that portions of the proposed text violated some of their rights under the constitution and were intended to humiliate them and disclose prior wrongdoing rather than prevention and restrain of further violations. The appeals resulted in modification of the language of the proposed statements.


Court also found that the suppression and concealment of information by the tobacco companies was integral to their efforts to defraud the public, and that they had failed to disclose, and created false controversy over the existence of, information they possessed about cigarettes.

The court therefore ordered the companies to create and maintain document depositories and websites which provide the government and the public with access to all the industry documents disclosed in the litigation. The companies were also ordered to provide government with their disaggregated marketing data to ensure transparency of their marketing efforts, particularly those directed towards the youth.


Court ordered the tobacco companies to specifically make corrective statements about
• Addiction,
• The adverse health effects of smoking
• The adverse health effects of exposure to second hand smoke
• The manipulation of the cigarette to enhance nicotine delivery, and
• The health benefits of light and low tar cigarettes