Tobacco barons savour a rare victory

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Battered by lawsuits, harried in Congress and under unprecedented assault from the federal government, the US tobacco industry at last has something to crow about: a formal apology from the country's biggest network news division for a "mistaken" report that it spiked cigarettes with extra nicotine to keep smokers hooked.

The victory of Philip Morris and R J Reynolds over ABC News is qualified, given that the network stands by its assertion that the industry routinely manipulates nicotine levels in cigarettes. But after six of the roughest months in their history, capped by President Bill Clinton's latest threat of draconian regulations to curb teenage smoking, a full one-minute apology on ABC's national news was a moment for the two largest US tobacco companies to savour.

In return for the public climbdown, the two companies are dropping a $10bn (pounds 6bn) libel suit against ABC. On top of its public climbdown however, the network has agreed to pay its opponents' legal fees, estimated at between $10 and $20m.

The dispute stems from a January 1994 documentary in which ABC asserted that the tobacco companies added "significant amounts of nicotine from outside sources" to "spike and fortify" cigarettes for the purpose of "addicting" smokers. That assertion, ABC acknowledges, was wrong.

Company spokesmen were proclaiming a historic triumph, while anti-tobacco groups accused the network of folding, largely out of fear of going to court in Richmond, Virginia, one of the prime tobacco producing states. Others see the hand of Disney at work, pressuring ABC to resolve the litigation before the entertainment group's merger with ABC's parent, Capital Cities Inc. "ABC should be ashamed of itself," said Clifford Douglas, an anti-tobacco activist who appeared in the original programme.

In fact, the episode will probably go down as a skirmish in the great tobacco wars of the 1990s and the industry's travails - above all the continuing harassment by the government's watchdog Food and Drug Administration (FDA) - are anything but over.

The new measures to prevent minors smoking, which include drastic curbs on advertising and a ban on cigarette-vending machines, could come into force by the end of the year. They are based upon a FDA report concluding that nicotine is a drug, and that companies "actively control" the amount and rate at which it is delivered to consumers.

The industry is accused of having concealed for decades the health dangers attendant upon smoking. From these charges, supported by leaked internal company documents, stem several lawsuits brought both by smokers and by states seeking to recover hundreds of millions of dollars spent treating lung cancer, emphysema and other smoking-related diseases.

But yesterday brought relief, however fleeting, and the companies were making the most of it. The "spiking" allegations, said a Philip Morris spokesman, had been a driving factor behind Congressional hearings into the industry and the FDA investigation, and had been seized on by anti- tobacco groups: "It will be interesting to see if they too offer an apology or whether they pretend the issue never existed."