Tobacco groups mull appeal after judge slates industry

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Philip Morris, the world's largest cigarette manufacturer, indicated yesterday that it may appeal against a stinging ruling handed down by a Washington DC judge which found that the tobacco industry had for decades conspired to mislead the public about the dangers of smoking.

The ruling, by US District Judge Gladys Kessler, was a bittersweet victory for the US Justice Department which had brought its lawsuit against the industry seven years ago. While she was scathing in her criticism of the cigarette makers, she said she was unable to impose the multibillion-dollar fines sought by the government because her hands were bound by an earlier appeals court judgment.

The decision will nonetheless cost the industry millions. The judge ordered that it begin placing advertisements in newspapers and on network television describing its sins in conspiring over decades to hoodwink consumers. She also demanded that they stop marketing brands using the labels "mild", "light" and "ultra-light", which incorrectly give the impression that they are safer than other brands.

Judge Kessler said that, over more than 50 years, the defendants "lied, misrepresented, and deceived the American public ... about the devastating health effects of smoking and environmental tobacco smoke". She added that they "suppressed research, they destroyed documents, they manipulated the use of nicotine so as to increase and perpetuate addiction, they distorted the truth about low-tar and light cigarettes so as to discourage smokers from quitting".

The defendants found liable in the case were Philip Morris, whose parent company is Altria, as well as RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co, which have merged into Reynolds American, Lorillard Tobacco Co and British American Tobacco.

Altria shares rose yesterday, in part because its Philip Morris unit had escaped any large fines. Investors also saw the end of the case as a chance for Altria to restructure and spin off its non-tobacco food division, Kraft Foods.