US Justice Department Calls for Sweeping Tobacco Marketing Curbs

11 March 2002

Tobacco manufacturers face a tough legal battle with the US Justice Department, which intends to ask a federal judge to place sweeping restrictions on the promotion of cigarettes.

The Department first filed the lawsuit in 1999, accusing tobacco firms of racketeering, fraud and conspiracy to conceal health risks. Some 400,000 Americans die of smoking-related diseases a year, the suit alleges, while sufferers of such illnesses cost the government $20 billion per annum in federal healthcare payments.

Lawyers from the two sides recently exchanged documents, bringing to light the scale of the government's demands. These include:

* Restricting all cigarette advertising to black-and-white print ads, half the space of which must be dedicated to "graphic health warnings."

* Banning trade promotions and giveaways. Such tactics – accounting for $3.54bn, 43% of the industry's aggregated marketing spend, in 1999 – have grown in popularity among tobacco firms as separate ad restrictions have been put in place.

* Forbidding the use of the terms "light", "mild" and "low-tar", with all ingredients to be listed on the packaging alongside descriptions of manufacturing methods.

* Devoting half of packaging to health warnings, with messages "created and supervised by the US Surgeon General" inserted into packets.

* Banning sales via vending machines.

* Ending the payment of 'slotting fees' to retailers for prominent placement of tobacco products.

In making such demands, the Justice Department is going much further than the existing legal settlement forged in 1998 between tobacco firms and 46 states.

Manufacturers intend to contest the allegations in court. Lead defendant Philip Morris blasted the Justice Department's move as "a politically motivated suit filed by the Clinton administration," while R J Reynolds said it would fight any restrictions on top of those agreed in the settlement with the states.

Some anti-tobacco campaigners have questioned the Bush-administration Justice Department's dedication to the suit, not least because attorney general John Ashcroft last year called for settlement talks. However, money to fight the case in court has been budgeted, and a representative of the government body insisted on Friday that it was "committed" to the lawsuit.

The trial, to be held before US district judge Gladys Kessler, is due to commence in June 2003.

Data sourced from: The Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff