At long last, after more than 60 years of denial and manipulation, the tobacco industry on Sunday will begin to confess the truth about its sins and the dangers of smoking.
On TV, online and in newspapers (including the Observer), the nation’s leading tobacco companies will run starkly honest ads describing the massive number of deaths tobacco causes and other truths about their product and how they market it.
They are doing so because a federal court has ordered them to and after 11 years of stalling and negotiating, time has run out.
Among the facts Altria, R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard and Philip Morris USA will confess:
▪ “Smoking kills, on average, 1,200 Americans. Every day.”
▪ “More people die every year from smoking than from murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes and alcohol, combined.”
▪ “Altria, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Lorillard, and Philip Morris USA intentionally designed cigarettes to make them more addictive.”
▪ “There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.”
The ads start running Sunday in about 50 newspapers across the country. The companies will buy five full-page ads that will run once per month through March. The TV ads begin this week and will run in primetime on the major networks, five times per week for a year.
It is remarkable and long overdue at the same time for the tobacco companies to admit that their primary product kills people and puts a massive burden on the American health care system.
It is happening only because the Department of Justice filed suit against the industry in 1999 and in 2006, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler issued a 1,683-page opinion spelling out how the companies sold “their lethal products” “without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted.”
Kessler ordered them to run “corrective statements” because they had deliberately deceived the public about the dangers of smoking. The companies appealed until now.
It is satisfying to see the tobacco companies forced to come clean. More importantly, we hope the ads will heighten awareness of how poisonous cigarettes are and accelerate the decline in youth smoking. Despite recent declines in cigarette smoking, about 1 in 5 high school students still uses some type of tobacco product. Almost 9 out of 10 cigarette smokers start before age 18, the CDC says.
The ads are a smart effort to try to reduce those numbers, but more can and should be done. Among the effective actions advocates suggest: The FDA should limit nicotine in cigarettes to minimal levels to make them less addictive. It should also prohibit the use of menthol and flavoring in cigarettes and other products, which make them more appealing to youth.
In North Carolina, there is an obvious unused tool: We rank 46th in the nation for cigarette taxes, at just 45 cents a pack. The average nationwide is $1.68, and several states impose a tax of $3 or more. Research has shown higher prices discourage youth use. North Carolina should raise its cigarette tax rate, as well as its legal age, from 18 to 21.