By Bill Mears
(CNN) — Tobacco companies have been ordered by a federal judge to publicly admit, through advertisements and package warnings, that they deceived American consumers for decades about the dangers of smoking.
Federal Judge Gladys Kessler issued her ruling Tuesday in one of the last legal steps settling liability in the long-running government prosecution of cigarette makers.
“By ensuring that consumers know that [tobacco companies] have misled the public in the past on the issue of secondhand smoke in addition to putting forth the fact that a scientific consensus on this subject exists,” said Kessler, “defendants will be less likely to attempt to argue in the future that such a consensus does not exist.”
Several other lawsuits over cigarette labeling are pending in federal court, part of a two-decade federal and state effort to force tobacco companies to limit their advertising, and settle billions of dollars in state and private class-action claims over the health dangers of smoking.
The judge, six years ago, concluded that tobacco companies were guilty of racketeering, and had ordered them to put tougher warning labels and other language in their marketing.
The litigation had been tied up for years over the wording of such labels, but Kessler said Tuesday the language pushed by the Justice Department was factual.
“Corrective statements” were ordered to be placed on five different areas, including: “Smoking is highly addictive. Nicotine is the addictive drug in tobacco” and “When you smoke, the nicotine actually changes the brain — that’s why quitting is so hard.”
Another mandated message says: “A Federal Court has ruled that the Defendant tobacco companies deliberately deceived the American public about designing cigarettes to enhance the delivery of nicotine, and has ordered those companies to make this statement. Here is the truth: Smoking kills, on average, 1200 Americans. Everyday.”
Other areas deal with second-hand smoke dangers, and the false benefits of so-called “low tar” and “mild” cigarettes marketed by companies that included Philip Morris (a subsidiary of Altria Group, Inc.) and R.J.. Reynolds Tobacco Co., and Lorillard Tobacco Co.
A federal appeals court in August rejected the government’s mandate tobacco companies separately place graphic images on their products warning of the dangers of smoking, with the majority saying the requirements were a violation of free speech. Such images would have included a corpse and smoke-infected lungs.
It was not clear if the tobacco companies would appeal this latest legal defeat to a U.S. appeals court. There was no immediate reaction from the Justice Department.
The case is U.S. v. Philip Morris (99-cv-2496).