Leading Article: Now for the other smokescreens

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Good news from an unlikely source. Last Thursday, in North Carolina - American bastion of guns and churches, off-duty Marines and a vine that strangles every tree in its path - a small tobacco company spoke the truth about cigarettes. The Liggett Group, producers of Chesterfields, admitted that its filter-tipped temptations led to cancer, heart disease, emphysema and, most importantly, a deliberately fostered addiction. Liggett had seen the error of its ways. For the next 25 years, it would give a quarter of its profits to litigants seeking redress for their smoking-related illnesses. It would make public its secret discussions with other, determinedly silent tobacco companies about nicotine and health. It would print "smoking is addictive" on its cigarette packets.

Such honesty, a little slow in the unveiling, sets an enticing general precedent nevertheless. Perhaps Ronald Reagan, once a Liggett endorser ("I'm sending Chesterfields to all my friends"), might like to enlighten us, after all these years, about how that money from selling arms to Iran ended up with America's friends in Nicaragua. Then again, Liggett's aim may not be entirely to promote frankness. The company is one of the smallest in its industry. Sales are falling, debt repayments looming. The chairman of Liggett's parent company, a Mr Bennett LeBow, has, as the Financial Times puts it, a record of "financial wheeler dealing". In return for giving away a quarter of its tiny profits, Liggett has acquired immunity from prosecution by the states lining up to sue its rivals. One of these companies may well buy Mr LeBow's enterprise in order to shut it up. Then Liggett will have pulled off the old tobacco-merchant's trick: keep everyone sweet and keep selling.