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Making Big Tobacco Pay

The Justice Dept. rightly decides to sue cigarette manufacturers

Surgeon General's Warning: Cigarette smoke contains carbon monoxide. Surgeon General's Warning: Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and may complicate pregnancy. Surgeon General's Warning: Smoking by pregnant women may result in fetal injury, premature birth and low birth weight. Surgeon General's Warning: Quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks your health.

The labels appear to say it all. But they don't.

The seemingly candid statements printed on the front of cigarette packages conceal a half-century-long intentional campaign to endanger the public for profit. Since a January 1954 meeting in the Plaza Hotel in New York City, several major cigarette manufacturers have been colluding in a heartless battle to deceive the public about long term effects of cigarette smoking. And the federal government has finally decided to take action.

On Sept. 22, Attorney General Janet Reno made the long-overdue decision to sue eight major cigarette manufacturers, alleging fraudulent and deceptive activities that include conducting biased research, intentionally concealing data showing that nicotine is addictive and suppressing the development of safer cigarettes in violation of federal anti-racketeering law.

The tobacco industry wants us to believe that smoking is a choice made by informed adults who evaluate the potential health risks of smoking and then decide, none the less, to engage in a risky behavior. Yet, these claims are near impossible to accept, especially in light of the fact that the tobacco industry so wants to avoid civil trials that, in the last year alone, it has agreed to pay $250 billion dollars to treat smoking related illness over the next 25 years.

Furthermore, industry representatives moan that the lawsuit may put cigarette manufacturers out of business. While it is regrettable that thousands of employees will likely lose their jobs, in the long term these losses can only benefit the nation as a whole.

Yet last week's decision to sue cannot alone lift the heavy cloud of deceit shrouding the actions of cigarette manufacturers. Congress must grant the Justice Department's request for $20 million for expert witnesses and government lawyers in order to make the lawsuit viable. And the Justice Department itself must permit evidence gathered in a five year long criminal investigation of cigarette manufacturers to be used in the civil lawsuit so tax payer dollars aren't unnecessarily wasted in a duplication of efforts.

State attorney general's offices should also follow suit. Florida's case was moved forward when, on Sept. 21, an appeals court agreed to reconsider a pro-tobacco ruling earlier this month which had stated that smokers' claims for punitive damage had to be heard individually instead of in class action suits.

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