US tobacco companies last week escaped relatively unscathed after a seven year legal battle which meted out withering words but less than crippling penalties from a federal judge.

District Judge Gladys Kessler decided Altria Group, R J Reynolds, Lorillard and BAT had conspired for over fifty years to break anti-racketeering laws and deceive consumers about the health risk of their products.

She said the case was about "an industry . . . that survives, and profits, from selling a highly addictive product which causes diseases that lead to a staggering number of deaths per year, an immeasurable amount of human suffering and economic loss, and a profound burden on our national healthcare system."

Despite her blistering condemnation, however, she stopped short of ordering the companies to pay out a potentially crippling $14 billion (€10.9bn; £7.42bn) for stop-smoking campaigns, lamenting that she did not feel she had the authority to do so.

Among the sanctions she did impose ...

  • The use of the terms "low tar," "light," "ultra light," "mild" and "natural" is banned.

  • For two years, the companies are required to run full-page corrective advertising monthly in Sunday editions of more than two dozen major newspapers with the schedule alternated so the ads appear at least weekly.

  • Major tobacco makers are ordered to run once-a-week 15-second corrective TV spots during prime-time for a year.

  • Packaging and instore signs must carry new corrective advertising.
The ruling is the culmination of a case brought by the US Justice Department, which originally sought $280bn in penalties against the tobacco giants who have opposed it every turn.

Altria, owner of industry leader Philip Morris USA says it will appeal the ruling, which its claims was "not supported by the law or the evidence presented at trial".

William Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, called it "a very important decision because Judge Kessler has found that we've got a rogue industry in this country."

But he admitted being "deeply disappointed" that the judge felt constrained "by misguided appellate court rulings."

Data sourced from; additional content by WARC staff