The nation’s major cigarette manufacturers do not have to admit in their own public messaging, such as ads and packaging, that they have deceived the public in the past about the hazards of smoking, but they do have to say that they designed their products to make them more addictive, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday.
The twenty-five page decision by the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit came in the latest round of the long-running court battle between the federal government and the big-tobacco firms, in the case of U.S. v. Philip Morris USA, Inc. It could set up a new attempt by the companies to get Supreme Court protection for what they say against themselves in their own promotional messages. They also have the option of first asking the full Circuit Court to review the dispute after yesterday’s ruling by a three-judge panel..
The case has actually gone through five separate appeals in the D.C. Circuit Court, after the government started the battle fifteen years ago. It is based on the government complaint that nine companies violated the anti-racketeering RICO law by a decades-long campaign to mislead the public about health hazards from smoking and to keep secret the ways nicotine is added to increase smokers’ dependency on cigarettes.
In the past, the Circuit Court has upheld some of the advertising restrictions that a federal judge imposed on the companies, but the new appeal focused specifically on two mandates that Senior Judge Gladys Kessler had added in her latest decision, in late January 2013.
Under that order, the cigarette companies were required to include in any newspaper or television ads, on cigarette packages, and in statements on their own websites, these statements (paraphrased here): that a federal court had ruled that they had deliberately deceived the American public about the dangers of cigarettes, and that they had intentionally designed cigarettes to maximize addiction to them.
In Friday’s ruling, the Circuit Court again emphasized that the RICO law only allowed remedies that were “forward-looking” — that is, would prevent future illegal acts — and would not allow remedies that applied to past misconduct. That law, it reiterated, permits “only remedies that, through reasonably direct means, keep RICO violators from again violated the act.”
It noted that, in a prior ruling, it had upheld disclosure requirements that would require the manufacturers to bring out in the open the “hidden truth about their products,” because that would keep them from violating the law in the future by continuing to issue “false and misleading statements.”
Turning to Judge Kesser’s two new mandates, the Circuit Court concluded that requiring the companies to say that they had been found by a federal court to have deliberately misled the public was an order focused upon past misconduct, and thus could not be required under RICO.
The Circuit Court conceded that such a required statement “might provide an effective — perhaps even the very best — means of curing consumer misconception and preventing consumer deception going forward,” but Judge Kessler had focusing on remedying the effects of past conduct, and she had no authority to do that.
That part of the ruling, in the companies’ favor, was based upon the three-judge panel’s interpretation of the specific language of the RICO law, and not on protection the companies have claimed under the First Amendment.
The companies also had challenged, under RICO and their free-speech rights under the First Amendment, the district judge’s command that they include in their public messages the statement that they made cigarettes in a way to enhance their addictive effect on smokers.
In Friday’s ruling, the Circuit Court did not rule on those challenges directly, instead concluding that, along the way at earlier stages in this prolonged litigation, the companies had waived their objections to such requirements — even though, at those earlier stages, Judge Kessler had not yet laid out in specific words what the companies were compelled to say about cigarette design in their manufacturing.
The judge had, in a prior ruling, warned the companies that they would later be required to tell the public about their manipulation of how cigarettes were designed and, specifically, how they worked to maximize the delivery of nicotine to make smoking more addictive. The specific wording that she imposed on them in the January 2013 decision now at issue, the Circuit Court said, was “squarely within the bounds” of what the judge had said previously, and the companies had surrendered their chance to complain.
The ruling was written by Circuit Judge David S. Tatel, and was joined by two senior circuit judges, Harry T. Edwards and A. Raymond Randolph.
If the companies seek reconsideration by the en-banc Circuit Court, it would be decided by eleven current judges, plus Senior Judges Edwards and Randolph if they chose to take part.
The companies have no automatic right to appeal to the Supreme Court, but do have the option, now or later, to ask the Justices to take on the dispute on the point on which they lost on Friday.