Washington A federal judge ruled Thursday that the nation's top cigarette makers violated racketeering laws, deceiving the public for years about the health hazards of smoking, but said she couldn't order them to pay the billions of dollars the government had sought.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler did order the companies to publish in newspapers and on their Web sites "corrective statements" on the adverse health effects and addictiveness of smoking and nicotine.
She also ordered tobacco companies to stop labeling cigarettes as "low tar," "light," "ultra light" or "mild," because such cigarettes have been found to be no safer than others because of how people smoke them.
In her ruling in the long-running case, the judge said: "Over the course of more than 50 years, defendants lied, misrepresented and deceived the American public, including smokers and the young people they avidly sought as 'replacement smokers,' about the devastating health effects of smoking and environmental tobacco smoke (secondhand smoke)."
Kessler, who presided over the nonjury trial in the case, said that adoption of a national stop-smoking program, as sought by the government, "would unquestionably serve the public interest" but that she was barred by an appeals court ruling that said remedies must be forward-looking and not penalties for past actions.
The government had asked the judge to make the companies pay $10 billion for smoking cessation programs, though the Justice Department's expert said $130 billion was needed.
That reduction in recommended remedies led to accusations that Robert McCallum, an associate attorney general appointed by President Bush, had tried to weaken the case. An internal Justice Department investigation cleared him of wrongdoing, however, saying he was supporting a figure he thought could be sustained on appeal. McCallum is now U.S. ambassador to Australia.
Kessler's decision came nearly a decade after the states reached legal settlements with the industry worth $246 billion and aimed at recovering health care costs. Those settlements imposed some restrictions on the industry, such as banning ads on billboards.
In the federal case, tobacco companies had denied committing fraud and had said changes in how cigarettes are sold now made it impossible for them to act fraudulently in the future.