The government's claim that tobacco companies conspired to entice children to smoke through aggressive marketing techniques can proceed as part of a $289 billion Justice Department lawsuit against the industry, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler denied a motion by the companies to dismiss a section of the case that claims a youth marketing campaign was part of a decades-long scheme to mislead the public about the dangers of smoking that violated federal racketeering laws.
"The government must be given the opportunity to prove its claim about defendants' youth marketing subscheme at trial," Kessler wrote in a 23-page opinion.
The government lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, points to such cartoon characters as Joe Camel as evidence of the scheme, along with advertising that glamorized smoking; placement of products in stores near schools, at movies and rock concerts; and ads in magazines that cater to a young readers.
The goal, according to government lawyers, was to sustain and expand the cigarette market by targeting children as a pool of potential new smokers.
The companies, including Philip Morris USA Inc., Winston-Salem, N.C.-based R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. and others, have long denied they tailored advertising campaigns to youngsters.
The companies contended in their motion to dismiss that marketing cigarettes to youth would not violate the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, as the lawsuit alleges. They also contended the ads were protected by the First Amendment and that their denials do not constitute fraud.
Kessler, however, said in her opinion that the youth marketing claims cannot be separated in the lawsuit from other parts of the larger scheme, including industry denials that smoking causes disease or is addictive and manipulation of nicotine to increase its potency.
The companies, she said, "ask the court to view youth advertising acts in artificial isolation from the rest of the pervasive scheme alleged by the government. ... The court must evaluate the overall scheme to defraud based on the totality of the circumstances alleged."
The decision means that the lawsuit, currently scheduled for trial in September, can continue intact. It was filed by the Clinton administration in 1999 and was inherited by the Bush administration's Justice Department.