The court-ordered publication of “corrective statements” by major US tobacco companies month should serve as a reminder that tobacco addiction remains a major health problem in the country and that Big Tobacco has a long history of marketing practices aimed at hooking a new generation on a lethal product, according to an Annals of American Thoracic Society editorial.
“Corrective Statements From the Tobacco Industry: More Evidence for Why We Need Effective Tobacco Control” recounts the legal history that led a federal court more than a decade ago to order major tobacco companies to take out advertisements in newspapers and on television that outline the scope of the health risk that cigarettes and second-hand smoke pose. After years of fighting the order in the courts, the tobacco industry will begin running these ads on 26 November.
In a ruling in 2006 on a lawsuit brought by the US Department of Justice against the tobacco industry under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organisations (RICO) Act, US District Judge Gladys Kessler wrote: “Defendants have marketed and sold their lethal produce with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted.”
As part of her landmark decision, Judge Kessler ordered the major tobacco companies to make corrective statements about the adverse health effects of smoking; the addictiveness of smoking and nicotine; the manipulation of cigarette ingredients to maximise nicotine delivery; the lack of health benefits from smoking light, mild, natural and other cigarette descriptors that imply less harm; and the dangers of second-hand smoke.
“All the statements draw on evidence-based findings from US surgeon general reports on tobacco – and on knowledge that the tobacco industry long had, but intentionally deceived the public about,” said Dr Harold J Farber lead author of the editorial, chair of the American Thoracic Society Tobacco Action Committee and associate professor of paediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine. “This is the first time that the tobacco companies are acknowledging the truth to the general public: tobacco is a product that is highly addictive and as a direct consequence of its design, kills people when used exactly as intended.”
Among the statements that the cigarette manufacturers will be compelled to make on 26 November: more people die every year from smoking than from murder, Aids, suicide, drugs, car crashes, and alcohol, combined; smoking also causes reduced fertility, low birth weight in new-borns, and cancer of the cervix; smoking is highly addictive. Nicotine is the addictive drug in tobacco; Altria, RJ Reynolds Tobacco, Lorillard, and Philip Morris USA intentionally designed cigarettes to make them more addictive; when you smoke, the nicotine actually changes the brain – that’s why quitting is so hard; all cigarettes cause cancer, lung disease, heart attacks, and premature death – lights, low tar, ultra-lights, and naturals. There is no safe cigarette; second-hand smoke causes lung cancer and coronary heart disease in adults who do not smoke; children exposed to second-hand smoke are at an increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), acute respiratory infections, ear problems, severe asthma, and reduced lung function; and there is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke.
These statements are only being published in the US. In Southeast Asia and other parts of the world, the authors note that the tobacco industry is aggressively fighting tobacco control efforts and prohibitions against marketing to children. “We know that efforts to tell the truth about tobacco have been effective in reducing rates of tobacco dependence,” Farber said. “However, we need to go further.”
The 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act gives the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to regulate tobacco products in order to protect the public health. Actions that they can take now include: graphic warning labels on cigarette packages, which studies have shown decrease the number of young people who begin smoking and increase the number of smokers who want to quit; tighter constraints on tobacco marketing that reaches adolescents, including point-of-sale marketing, electronic cigarette advertising and Internet and social media advertising; and restrictions on flavoured tobacco products, which are attractive to young people and increase the likelihood that they will become established smokers.
Unfortunately, the FDA has fallen short on their responsibilities,” Farber said. “Despite extensive evidence of harm to youth, the FDA has deferred taking action on flavoured tobacco products, failed to take action to limit tobacco marketing that is accessible to youth, and has fallen short on actions to regulate or restrict tobacco products whose design attracts and addicts youth.”
Still, the editorial argues that the corrective statements are a “good first step” in renewed efforts to eliminate the biggest threat to public health. “Efforts to tell the truth about tobacco have been effective in reducing rates of tobacco dependence,” the authors write. They add that the “simple measures” they recommend to thwart Big Tobacco’s efforts to hook young people can help to protect our children from “the grim reality of the death and disease” caused by cigarettes and other tobacco products.