Big Tobacco’s anti-smoking ads begin after decade of delay

WASHINGTON (AP) — Decades after they were banned from the airwaves, Big Tobacco companies return to prime-time television this weekend — but not by choice.

Under court order, the tobacco industry for the first time will be forced to advertise the deadly, addictive effects of smoking, more than 11 years after a judge ruled the companies had misled the public about the dangers of cigarettes.

But years of legal pushback by the industry over every detail means the ads will be less hard-hitting than what was proposed. Tobacco control experts say the campaign — built around network TV and newspapers — will not reach people when they are young and most likely to start smoking.

“Their legal strategy is always obstruct, delay, create confusion and buy more time,” said Ruth Malone, of the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied the industry for 20 years. “So by the time this was finally settled, newspapers have a much smaller readership, and nowadays, who watches network TV?”

The new spots, which begin Sunday, lay out the toll of smoking in blunt text and voiceover statements: “More people die every year from smoking than from murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes and alcohol, combined.”

Smoking remains the nation’s leading preventable cause of death and illness, causing more than 480,000 deaths each year, even though smoking rates have been declining for decades. Last year, the adult smoking rate hit a new low of 15 percent, according to government figures. That’s down from the 42 percent of adults who smoked in the mid-1960s.

The new ads are the result of a 1999 lawsuit filed by the Justice Department under President Bill Clinton that sought to recover some of the billions the federal government spent caring for people with smoking-related illnesses.

A federal judge ultimately sided with the government in 2006, ruling Big Tobacco had “lied, misrepresented and deceived the American public” about the effects of smoking for more than 50 years. The decision came nearly a decade after U.S. states reached legal settlements with the industry worth $246 billion.

But under the racketeering laws used to prosecute the federal case, the judge said she could not make the companies pay, instead ordering them to publish “corrective statements” in advertisements, as well as on their websites, cigarette packs and store displays.

The campaign will be paid for by Altria Group, owner of Philip Morris USA, and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., a division of British American Tobacco.

Altria, maker of Marlboros, referred inquiries to a statement it issued last month: “We remain committed to aligning our business practices with society’s expectations of a responsible company. This includes communicating openly about the health effects of our products.”

Reynolds, which sells Camel cigarettes, did not respond for comment.

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