The government has asked a federal judge to order the tobacco industry to pay $10 billion to help some smokers quit, spend $4 billion to educate the public about the dangers of smoking, and face penalties if youth smoking does not drop by nearly half in the next decade.
In an eight-month racketeering trial, which ended two weeks ago, the government argued that the nation's six largest tobacco companies engaged in a 50-year conspiracy to both defraud the public about the risks of smoking and lure children into the dangerous habit. In a 60-page proposal filed just before midnight Monday, the Justice Department spelled out the restrictions and requirements it wants U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler to impose on cigarette makers.
The proposal was significantly less than government lawyers had sought going into the trial. In closing arguments June 7, Justice lawyers announced that they would seek $120 billion less from the industry for smoking-cessation programs, a move that stunned anti-tobacco activists.
Senior Justice officials overruled career lawyers to seek the lesser amount, saying that a February ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit prevented the government from seeking $280 billion in past company profits to remedy the alleged fraud. The government has a July 18 deadline to decide whether to appeal that ruling to the Supreme Court.
William V. Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said it was disappointing that the proposal filed Monday night provides only enough money to help 2.5 million of American's 45 million smokers quit and "fails to reverse the government's capitulation" on its $130 billion program. He said it also does not provide enough money for public education. The proposal's strengths included plans to reduce youth smoking and prohibit misleading marketing.
"At the same time, it includes many proposals that if fully and effectively implemented could prevent future industry wrongdoing and significantly reduce the death toll from tobacco in our country," he said.
Tobacco company attorneys said the government's proposal was a wish list of public health policy initiatives that a federal judge could not legally order the industry to launch. They said the government failed to show a conspiracy or the likelihood of future misconduct.
"It's in some respects a high-minded proposal . . . but it's not connected to the evidence or the law," said William S. Ohlemeyer, vice president of Altria Group. "The Justice Department has to stop pretending that the law and the facts and the record don't matter."
In response to criticism and questions from more than 50 Democratic lawmakers, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility has initiated an investigation into whether political interference played a role in the government's decision to dramatically scale back the proposed cessation program and to urge their own witnesses to soften their testimony against the industry.
"We see today in their own words that this administration has made a political decision to cave in to Big Tobacco at the expense of the American people," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).