Tobacco Trial Wrapping Up

cigarette butts smoking generic ashtray
More than five years after filing suit, prosecutors started summarizing their racketeering case against major cigarette makers Tuesday, arguing for penalties including restrictions on the marketing of tobacco products.

"During the course of this trial, the United States has met its burden of proof," said Justice Department attorney Sharon Eubanks, describing a "decades-long pattern of ... misrepresentations, half truths, deceptions and lies that continue to this day."

Cigarette makers deny the government's allegations that the companies conspired for decades to deceive the public about the dangers of smoking. The companies argue that the law severely limits any sanctions the trial judge can impose, even if she finds against them.

The Justice Department filed the case in 1999 under the civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO. U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler has been hearing the non-jury trial that started in September.

The department asked for a list of penalties against the companies, including funding a nationwide smoking cessation program and educational campaigns designed to counter tobacco marketing and a series of restrictions on practices such as price discounts and in-store displays.

Government lawyer Stephen Brody suggested Kessler issue injunctions to ensure the companies do not mislead the public about the risks of smoking and require the companies to pay for court-appointed monitors to ensure compliance. Changes the monitors could recommend if they find misconduct includes the removal of senior management, Brody said.

Kessler asked the government to look for legal precedents that would back their request.

"Here you are essentially asking for judicial oversight of private corporations. These are very weighty issues, I'll leave it at that," she said.

"In almost nine months of trial, the United States introduced voluminous evidence that the tobacco industry defendants engaged in an over-50-year scheme to mislead the American public about the health risks of smoking and to market cigarettes to young people," Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum said in a statement. "The government also presented considerable evidence that the defendants have continued to mislead the public to the present day and will continue to do so into the future."

The defendants in the lawsuit are: Philip Morris USA Inc. and its parent, Altria Group Inc.; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.; Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co.; British American Tobacco Ltd.; Lorillard Tobacco Co.; Liggett Group Inc.; Counsel for Tobacco Research-U.S.A.; and the Tobacco Institute.

In February, an appeals court stripped the government of its biggest stick against the defendants, denying a request to seek $280 billion in allegedly ill-gotten gains.

The companies argue that many of the other suggested penalties aren't permitted under civil RICO law. As they begin closing arguments on Wednesday, defendants will likely focus on how the statute restricts what Kessler can do.

"I think it's fair to say that what you're going to see from the defendants is a blistering and well-deserved attack on the government's case," said William S. Ohlemeyer, vice president of Altria Group Inc., the parent company of Philip Morris USA.