US: Government Seeks $289 Billion from Tobacco

Publisher Name: 
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The nation's tobacco companies should forfeit $289 billion in profits for a scheme to deceive and defraud smokers and the general public, the
Justice Department says in court filings.

In more than 1,400 pages filed in U.S. District Court as part of the
government's suit against the tobacco industry, the Justice Department
estimated 440,000 Americans die each year from smoking cigarettes or being
exposed to secondhand smoke, or one of every five deaths in the United
States.

The government accused companies of lying about a link between cigarettes
and cancer, denying that smoking was addictive and continuing to target
teenagers.

"Defendants have intentionally marketed cigarettes to youth under the
legal smoking age while falsely denying that they have done so," the
filing said.

Bill Ohlemeyer, vice president and associate general counsel for Philip
Morris USA, called the claims absurd and noted the government regulates
how cigarettes are sold.

"Congress has drafted the health warnings that have been on every pack of
cigarettes since 1966," he said. "A lot of what they claim as being fraud
are things that are either false or things that the government was aware
of because the tobacco companies were either working with the government
or were being told by the government about some of these issues."

The trial is scheduled to begin in September 2004, but Ohlemeyer said the
company will ask the judge this fall to dismiss the case.

Lawmakers from tobacco-growing states criticized the filings. "Continuing
this crusade will harm tobacco sharecroppers more than it will harm
tobacco shareholders," said Sara Yawn, a spokeswoman for Rep. Bob
Etheridge, D-N.C.

The Clinton administration filed the lawsuit in 1999. The following year,
U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that the government could
not recover billions of dollars spent by Medicare to treat sick smokers.
She allowed the government to seek damages for profits tobacco companies
allegedly obtained through fraud.

The suit is separate from the action that states brought against the
industry for health care costs related to smoking, settled in 1998 for
$246 billion. That settlement included restrictions on advertising aimed
at young smokers with cartoon characters such as R.J. Reynolds' Joe Camel.

During the Clinton administration, congressional Republicans tried to
block the government from paying for the lawsuit. And after President Bush
took office, the new administration initially did not request money to
pursue the case, and later discussed settling the suit.

Anti-smoking groups that have been skeptical of the Bush administration's
desire to pursue the case praised the Justice Department's filings.

"It indicates that the tobacco companies' illegal actions have continued
to this very day, notwithstanding the industry trying to convince the
American people, Congress and the administration that they have reformed,"
said William Corr, executive vice president of the Campaign for
Tobacco-Free Kids.

Tobacco industry analyst Martin Feldman of Merrill Lynch said the Bush
administration has simply added a dollar figure to the Clinton
administration lawsuit.

"The publication of an actual dollar amount in no way strengthens the
(government's) claims, nor does it weaken the defense argument," Feldman
said. "The administration has taken the view that instead of simply
withdrawing this claim, it will let the courts decide."

The tobacco industry gave the Republicans $3.5 million in campaign
contributions from 1999 to 2002, almost three times the $1.2 million given
to Democrats during the same period, according to Political Money Line, an
Internet research site that tracks donations and lobbying expenses.

On the Net: Justice Department: www.usdoj.gov

Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids: www.tobaccofreekids.org

Philip Morris: www.philipmorrisusa.com

AMP Section Name:Tobacco
  • 109 Tobacco