WASHINGTON — The Justice Department wants the largest cigarette manufacturers to admit that they lied to the public about the dangers of smoking, forcing the industry to set up and pay for an advertising campaign of self-criticism for past behavior.
As part of a 12-year-old lawsuit against the tobacco industry, the government on Wednesday released 14 "corrective statements" that it says the companies should be required to make.
One "corrective" statement says: "A federal court is requiring tobacco companies to tell the truth about cigarette smoking. Here's the truth: ... Smoking kills 1,200 Americans. Every day."
Another of the government's proposed statements begins: "We falsely marketed low tar and light cigarettes as less harmful than regular cigarettes to keep people smoking and sustain our profits."
"For decades, we denied that we controlled the level of nicotine delivered in cigarettes," a third statement says. "Here's the truth. ... We control nicotine delivery to create and sustain smokers' addiction, because that's how we keep customers coming back."
In a court proceeding Thursday, lawyers for the tobacco companies made clear their intent to challenge the Justice Department statements by seeking more information from the government about how it chose those particular statements. The judge in the case, Gladys Kessler, said she would rule no later than early next week on how much leeway to give the companies in challenging the statements.
Philip Morris USA, maker of Marlboro, the nation's top-selling cigarette brand, and its parent company, Altria Group Inc., said Wednesday they were prepared to fight if the Justice Department won't dial back its hard-hitting proposals.
Philip Morris said the Justice Department plan would compel an admission of wrongdoing under threat of contempt of court by a judge.
"Such a proposal is unprecedented in our legal system and would violate basic constitutional and statutory standards," the company statement said.
The Justice Department released its proposed statements after winning Judge Kessler's approval to place them in the public record. She has said she wants the industry to pay for corrective statements in various types of ads, both broadcast and print, but she has not made a final decision on what the statements will say, where they must be placed or for how long.
The judge ruled in 2006 that the tobacco industry had concealed the dangers of smoking for decades. If Kessler approves, the proposed statements by the cigarette makers would become the remedy to ensure the companies don't repeat the violation. The case was brought by the government against the industry in 1999.
The companies have escaped from having to pay the hundreds of billions of dollars that the government has sought to collect from them. Lower courts have said the government is not entitled to collect $280 billion in past profits or $14 billion for a national campaign to curb smoking.
The industry asked for 90 days to respond to the government's statements, but the judge denied that request. The tobacco companies have until March 3 to respond.
Philip Morris said it agrees with the overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking is addictive and causes lung cancer, heart disease and other serious diseases in smokers. But the company said the proposal also would violate a court of appeals decision which held that any corrective statements must be purely factual and uncontroversial.
"The government's proposal is neither," Murray Garnick, Altria Client Services senior vice president and associate general counsel, said in the company statement. "We will work with the Department of Justice and, if necessary, challenge the proposal at the appropriate time."
The government proposed 14 statements to cover the addictiveness of nicotine, the lack of health benefit from "low tar," `'ultra-light" and "mild" cigarettes and negative health effects of second-hand smoke.
The proposed statements are labeled "Paid for" by the name of the cigarette manufacturer "under order of a federal district court."
Other proposed statements include:
"We told Congress under oath that we believed nicotine is not addictive. We told you that smoking is not an addiction and all it takes to quit is willpower. Here's the truth: Smoking is very addictive. And it's not easy to quit."
"Just because lights and low tar cigarettes feel smoother, that doesn't mean they are any better for you. Light cigarettes can deliver the same amounts of tar and nicotine as regular cigarettes."
"The surgeon general has concluded" that "children exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome, acute respiratory infections, ear problems and more severe asthma."