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Judge Finds Big Tobacco Guilty of Racketeering, Conspiracy

A federal judge has ruled that five major tobacco companies violated racketeering laws and conspired to cover up the risks of smoking. Two analysts discuss the verdict.

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    It was a stinging indictment. The ruling came seven years after the government began its case against major tobacco companies, seeking billions of dollars in fines.

    U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler put it bluntly: "Over the course of more than 50 years, defendants lied, misrepresented and deceived the American public, including smokers and the young people they avidly sought as replacement smokers, about the devastating health effects of smoking."

    The judge found that the companies had violated civil racketeering laws and ordered them to stop describing their products with the labels "low tar," "light," and "mild." She also ordered the companies to begin a media campaign to correct years of misrepresentation. But Judge Kessler said she could not impose the huge penalties the Justice Department had sought because of a prior ruling by a higher court.

    So where does that leave things? We discuss that now with former FDA commissioner Dr. David Kessler. He's now dean of the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. For the record, he was the government's lead witness in this case and we note is not related to the judge.

    Also with us is Mary Aronson, an independent tobacco litigation analyst who attended the trial. Tobacco companies declined our request for an interview.

    Dr. Kessler, let me start with you. You've been a leading player in this fight for a long time. Are you pleased with the ruling?

  • DAVID KESSLER, Former FDA Commissioner:

    I think it is an historic ruling. It ends once and for all any debates about what the companies knew and what they did.

    They knew that cigarettes caused cancer, and they lied about it. They knew that nicotine was addictive, and they lied about that, too. They manipulated the levels of nicotine in cigarettes to sustain a smoker's addiction. And they denied that, knowing that that was incorrect. They lied about marketing to youth.

    It is an historic decision. And what was very important about the judge's ruling was that she said that the conduct continues even until this day.