It took more than a decade of holding the tobacco industry’s feet to the fire, but the American Cancer Society and other public health groups are grateful that cigarette giants Altria, Philip Morris USA, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and Lorillard are finally forced to tell the truth – that their product is addictive and kills.
The question is whether the lies and deception will stop.
Big Tobacco makes its big mea culpa in court-ordered newspaper ads that start appearing Sunday and in prime-time TV spots that begin Monday. The “corrective statements” will continue through April in newspapers and weekly over the next year on TV.
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This all began with a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department in 1999 and the landmark judgment issued by U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler in 2006. It found that tobacco companies broke civil racketeering laws and defrauded the American people by lying for decades about the health effects of smoking, which was made worse by marketing specifically aimed at children.
The American Cancer Society was joined in the legal action by the American Heart Association, American Lung Association, Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, National African American Tobacco Prevention Network and the Tobacco-Free Kids Action Fund.
We can’t rest on our laurels, however. The corrective ads won’t derail Big Tobacco’s attempts to circumvent what’s in the best interest of public health. We saw that last year when it spent more than $70 million to unsuccessfully fight a long overdue tobacco tax increase in California, supported by an overwhelming number of voters.
We are seeing it now as we fight R.J. Reynolds’ scheme to mislead San Francisco voters into reversing a new flavored tobacco ordinance to reduce smoking. The company shamelessly spent $1 million to put a referendum on the June 2018 ballot.
The tobacco industry knows other cities such as Sacramento are contemplating similar ordinances to keep the next generation from a potential lifetime addiction to tobacco. Menthol cigarettes and e-cigarettes that taste like bubble gum and other youth favorites are being marketed as “starter” products to attract kids and communities facing the greatest health disparities. For years, this type of targeted marketing has been used in African American communities, where residents smoke menthol at very high rates, quit smoking at lower rates and die at higher rates from lung cancer.
Despite significant progress in reducing smoking, cigarette smoking is still the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States, killing more than 480,000 Americans and costing about $170 billion in health care expenses each year.
The corrective statements are a big win for public health, but Big Tobacco’s deceit and manipulation continues. The industry challenges legislative victories in court, manipulates products to get around existing regulations, produces and promotes new tobacco products and spends billions of dollars on marketing to deceive the public and to addict young, new customers to replace dying smokers.
Has Big Tobacco learned from its mistakes? The answer, of course, is no. These manipulators are repeating their lies and deception and it is our job to stop them.
Jim Knox is managing director of American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network California. He can be contacted at Jim.Knox@cancer.org.