A federal judge threw the book at the tobacco industry yesterday, and a big book it was – a 1,742-page ruling that took more than a year to write. U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that the industry “lied, misrepresented and deceived the American public” and ordered it curtail certain forms of advertising.
The ruling also laid out in the starkest terms what the industry and its lawyers had done for half a century: “In short, defendants have marketed and sold their lethal product with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted.”
But it was a Pyrrhic victory for anti-smoking forces. Until 2001 it had been your government that was leading the battle to make the tobacco industry cough up $280 billion of past profits as a penalty. But then an election happened – you don’t have to guess who the tobacco industry supported – and the new Justice Department scaled back its demands to a paltry $14 billion, and a conservative appeals court ruled that the manufacturers could not be forced to give back profits at all. So Judge Kessler could only order the companies to stop lying in their advertising and take other corrective actions whose cost can be counted in the mere millions.
Despite the judge’s brutal excoriation of them, these merchants of death won big. If you didn’t think so at first, check the stock market. Altria (Philip Morris) was up 3.4 percent and R.J. Reynolds was up almost 2 percent in the first hours of trading the morning after the “victory” for tobacco opponents.