- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 18, 2004

American Tobacco used to promote its Carlton brand with the soft-sell slogan, “If you smoke, please try Carlton.” Philip Morris has taken this approach a step further: If you smoke, please stop.

“Cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other serious diseases in smokers,” the cigarette manufacturer’s Web site warns. “If you’re a smoker and you’re concerned about the health effects of smoking, you should quit.”

Though “cigarette smoking is addictive” and “it can be very difficult to quit,” Philip Morris adds, “this shouldn’t stop you from trying to do so.” It provides links to several sites offering advice to would-be ex-smokers.

This is the new face of Philip Morris. The company hopes it will help fend off a potentially ruinous federal lawsuit that portrays the leading cigarette manufacturers as participants in a five-decade conspiracy to defraud the public.

As the trial, scheduled to begin Tuesday, gets under way, the tobacco companies want everyone to know (1) they didn’t really do anything wrong and (2) they’ve changed their ways.

If that seems contradictory to you, you should look at the Justice Department case. The government argues the tobacco companies conspired not to market reduced-risk cigarettes because they were loath to admit there was any risk to be reduced. At the same time, it faults them for selling lower-yield cigarettes as safer alternatives to full-strength brands.

It’s true lower-yield cigarettes did not deliver the substantial health benefits originally expected. The main problem is people do not smoke cigarettes the same way as the machines used to measure “tar” and nicotine delivery.

If you reduce nicotine along with the “tar,” which is what the cigarette manufacturers generally did, smokers tend to compensate by taking more puffs, inhaling more deeply, holding the smoke longer, and subconsciously covering ventilation holes. The upshot is they may not significantly reduce their exposure to the toxins and carcinogens in tobacco smoke.

A logical response is to maintain nicotine levels while reducing “tar” delivery. But this requires “nicotine manipulation,” which the government portrays as a sinister plot to keep smokers hooked, part of the “pattern of racketeering activity” for which it is suing Philip Morris et al. under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

Another problem with attacking the tobacco companies for conspiring to falsely reassure smokers by introducing lower-yield cigarettes is that the government was part of this conspiracy. It approved the testing method and required inclusion of “tar” and nicotine ratings in cigarette ads.

Although doubts about the ratings’ reliability were publicly expressed early, it seemed a pretty good idea at the time and the initial epidemiological evidence was promising. Only relatively recently have public health officials begun stressing “there is no conclusive evidence of reduced risk from ‘low-tar’ cigarettes,” as the National Cancer Institute put it in 2001.

By contrast, smoking’s health risks have long been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, something the tobacco companies acknowledged so belatedly their intransigence became a joke. The question is whether we should now consider it an outrage.

At the heart of the government’s lawsuit is the claim 33 million Americans were tricked into smoking because they didn’t understand the health risks, though these have common knowledge for decades, and/or didn’t realize it might be difficult to quit, though the difficulty of breaking the tobacco habit has been remarked for centuries. Because all these smokers were defrauded, the government demands “disgorgement” of $280 billion in “ill-gotten gains.”

Indeed, the Justice Department says this enormous sum — the proceeds, with interest, from cigarette sales to “youth-addicted” smokers from 1971 to 2001 — is a conservative estimate. “All of Defendants’ sales to all consumers from 1954 to 2001 were inextricably intertwined with this massive scheme to defraud the public,” it says, so “the United States would be justified in seeking disgorgement of the proceeds from all sales to people of all ages from 1954 into the future.”

The implication is no one knew smoking was dangerous until the tobacco companies admitted it. Not only that, but given the industry history of dishonesty, continuing to sell cigarettes is “racketeering.” In this light, Philip Morris’ strategy of urging the public not to buy its products makes even more sense.

Jacob Sullum, a nationally syndicated columnist, is the author of “Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use.”

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