The central issue between the government and major tobacco companies involved in the Justice Department's landmark racketeering case against the cigarette industry is the content and implementation of so-called "corrective statements" on tobacco labeling, lawyers for the opposing sides said today in court.
The government's racketeering case against Big Tobacco, which charged major companies with participating in a decades-long conspiracy to dupe the public about the dangers of smoking, is back in in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after the U.S. Supreme Court over the summer declined to hear the case.
Justice Department lawyers, including Ann Ravel, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Division, and attorneys for tobacco companies that include Altria Group Inc. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., met today for an hour-long hearing. The attorneys are debating the implementation of Judge Gladys Kessler’s ruling in 2006 against the tobacco companies.
Ravel said in court that the opposing lawyers are at an impasse with regard to corrective statements.
In a status report filed last month, Ravel said the sides have “fundamental disagreements” over the purpose of Kessler’s corrective-statements remedy. The statements, Ravel said in court papers, will “help correct false beliefs and thus ‘inoculate’ the public against further false and misleading statements,” making it more difficult for the tobacco companies to violate RICO laws.
The tobacco companies, according to the Justice Department, do not believe there’s any need for corrective statements since the passage of a new law that updates the “surgeon general’s warning” labeling on packs of cigarettes. The changes to the law, which take effect in September 2012, require cigarette packages and advertisements to include one of nine health warning statements.
Beth Wilkinson, a partner in the Washington office of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, argued on behalf of Altria. (Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner Miguel Estrada also appeared in court on behalf of Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA.)
Wilkinson denied the parties are at an impasse regarding the corrective statements. She said the tobacco companies will want to review the statements the government is working on with science experts. “Obviously we all hope that those communications will be acceptable and that we can move forward,” Wilkinson said.
The tobacco companies, Wilkinson said, are expected to file court papers addressing the impact of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which took effect last year, on Kessler’s injunction against the cigarette industry.