How Big Tobacco got away with the Crime of the Century

It all began in 1994. Years of outrage over decades of Big Tobacco’s lies finally seemed to be coming to fruition. 1994 was the year it seemed like we finally turned a corner in the fight against Big Tobacco.

None of these tobacco CEOs were indicted for perjury

The early 90s was pretty much the height of the lung cancer epidemic. Ever since then, lung cancer rates overall have been slowly dropping, especially among men. It was also the height of “Joe Camel,” a wildly successful marketing campaign by RJ Reynolds that appealed to beginning smokers (i.e., teenagers). What was really alarming people at the time was that the teenage smoking rate had been steadily decreasing until the mid- to late-80s. Then, shockingly, the teen smoking rate started going up, and going up markedly. Why? Joe Camel. Tobacco paying millions every year to insert “cool” smoking scenes in PG and PG-13 movies. They were finding a way to market to kids.

Harry Waxman nailed 'em, then they slithered away

Congressman Harry Waxman held a famous series of Congressional hearings in 1994 in which the CEOs of the four major tobacco companies were subpoenaed to testify before Waxman’s committee about the cover-up and lies of Big Tobacco. All four CEOs — from RJ Reynolds, Phillip Morris, Brown & Williamson and Lollilard — steadfastly refused to budge an inch under withering questioning from Waxman and other congressmen that they knew cigarettes were addictive and were killing people. They all four claimed they did not believe this.

The public was outraged. It was a major public relations debacle for Big Tobacco. Within months, a perjury investigation was initiated by the Department of Justice. All four CEOs were eventually fired. Ultimately, the Department of Justice claimed it didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute for perjury because the four CEOs testified under oath they believed tobacco did not addict people nor cause cancer. They had crafted their answers very carefully, obviously with help from attorneys. Because they had used the word believe, they could not be prosecuted for perjury.

Joe Camel, retired by the MSA in 1998

Then came the Global Settlement Agreement, which came oh, so close to passing. This was a settlement proposed between several plaintiffs and Big Tobacco to right at least some of the wrongs committed by Big Tobacco over the past century. This included payment of $365 billion to the states for their Medicaid costs caused by smoking. FDA would be given regulation over tobacco products, warning labels would be strengthened and all class-actions suits against Big Tobacco would be nullified.
This required an act of Congress (because of the FDA involvement), and Congress failed to pass the bill, which was carried by Sen. John McCain.

Out of the flames of that failure, came the the Master Settlement Agreement, which was announced in 1998, I cheered. Finally, Big Tobacco was being brought to its knees. It wasn’t as good as the GSA, but it still sounded good. Big Tobacco would be crushed by a $280 billion out-of-court settlement with 46 states … (give or take several billion depending on your accounting).

I continued to cheer it for at least five years … until I started finding out all that had been lost. All in all, this agreement was an abject failure on most levels, explained very well in Alan Brandt’s “The Cigarette Century.”

The Master Settlement Agreement is to this day the biggest court settlement ever reached in the history of litigation. Big Tobacco (RJ Reynolds, Phillip Morris, Lollilard and Brown & Williamson), was sued by the state of Mississippi in the early 1990s to reimburse the state for its Medicaid expenses caused by all the health problems caused by smoking. 40 other states joined the suit. Famed Mississippi attorney Dickey Scruggs took over the plaintiffs’ case, leading an army of lawyers against Big Tobacco.

The case had an interesting basis in law. The tobacco industry was adding untold billions to the Medicaid expenses of states dealing with the near-epidemic of health problems caused by cigarettes — lung cancer, heart disease, lung disease, etc. In the 70s and 80s, lung cancer especially hit a crescendo as all those heavy smokers who started smoking in the 1950s and 1960s (when the smoking rate was the highest) started getting lung cancer. The industry knew damn well that its product was making people sick, yet continued to sell it … and this was actually adding to taxpayers’ tax burdens.

All this information came out in a series of documents leaked over a period of years from various personal injury lawsuits against the tobacco industry. While few of these lawsuits succeeded (Most jury decisions for the plaintiffs were either overturned by higher courts or the damages greatly reduced), one good thing did come out of all this litigation. Discovery.

Big Tobacco paid millions to insert smoking in movies

Through the discovery process, reams and reams of documents were released to the plaintiffs, who in turn made them available to the public, proving that the tobacco industry had known since the early 1950s that tobacco was giving people heart disease and lung cancer and that nicotine was physically addictive and that “light” cigarettes were not safer than “regular.” Documents were released showing that Big Tobacco executives did their damnedest to keep this information covered up, and to fabricate studies attempting to disprove that cigarettes were killing people. More documents also proved that the industry had been shamelessly marketing to “new smokers,” which is a Big Tobacco euphemism for “teenage smokers.”

With this reams upon reams of evidence now out in the public forum, Big Tobacco was forced to settle, or face constant lawsuits and judgments. However, the high-priced Big Tobacco lawyers completely outmaneuvered the state attorneys general in the settlement.

The biggest failure of the agreement? It was suggested in the agreement that a certain amount of the $280 billion go toward tobacco education and cessation programs. Everyone assumed it would. Everyone thought it was a MANDATE. It was never MANDATED however.

Anti-smoking programs did receive a lot of funding from the settlement for a few years, but it didn’t take states very long to figure out that the word “mandate” wasn’t in the settlement anywhere. Before long, state legislatures started diverted that money to balancing their general funds. Money for tobacco education dried up. Lazy state legislators got an easy source of money to balance their budget without raising property taxes. It turned into a huge windfall. Not only that, but states started selling bonds with the intention that they would be paid off by future tobacco settlement funds.

Instead of stamping out smoking, states had become utterly dependent upon tobacco. It wasn’t in the states’ interest to cut smoking rates.

There was one last chance to really nail the tobacco industry. A RICO racketeering lawsuit filed against Big Tobacco in the federal court by the Justice Department under Bill Clinton. They had a damn good case. Tobacco executives had conspired for years to cover up the addictiveness and deadliness of their product. They had conspired for years to cover up the fact that they were marketing their product to kids. They had lied that “light” cigarettes were safer.

The feds won their case in 2006, sort of. A federal judge issued a scathing ruling convicting Big Tobacco of racketeering under the RICO statutes. An appeals court upheld this decison. However, shockingly, the courts did not impose any financial penalties, saying the RICO statute did not allow this. Some argue that the Justice Department under Bush did not pursue the case as aggressively as it had been pursued under Clinton, and this was part of the reason for the mixed ruling. The case is still being appealed as the government is seeking more of a monetary punishment against Big Tobacco.

So, tobacco executive lost their jobs for lying to Congress, were investigated for perjury, but avoided an indictment. Big Tobacco was convicted by a federal judge of RICO racketeering, and that conviction was upheld by an appeals court, but no executives went to jail, nor was the industry even forced to pay penalties. A huge civil settlement with the states has simply turned into a windfall for state government.

Big Tobacco murdered people for decades. And murder is not too strong of a word for it. They knew since the early 1950s, maybe even earlier, that they had a product that was addicting people and was killing people. And they continued to sell it and market it, and then they marketed it to kids. And they covered up and lied. For decades. It’s amazing to me that not one person has ever spent a day in jail for it. And people are rotting in prison in Texas and Florida for selling pot.

They got away with it. The final chapter of Dr. Allan Brandt’s book, “The Tobacco Century,” is “The Crime of the Century.”

They murdered roughly 100 million people worldwide between 1950 and 2010, and by “murder,” I mean they knew full well they were killing people with their addictive product.

If you want to look at the glass half-full, a few good things did come out of the 1998 MSA:

* Joe Camel was retired for good. Big Tobacco is forbidden from marketing to kids again (no ads with cartoon characters). They have attempted to get around this provision several times.

* Payments to movie studios for product placement were forbidden. Weirdly enough, smoking scenes in movies after 1998 actually went up, not down. Big Tobacco insists they have nothing to do with this. It’s probably Hollywood’s continued love affair with the cigarette dating back to Casablanca. However, pressure has been put on Hollywood to cut gratuitous smoking scenes out of PG and G movies. That pressure seems to be working.

* The cost of cigarettes went up. To pay for the $280 billion settlement, the industry as expected raised their prices. Along with a number of states jacking up their cigarette taxes, in some cases dramatically, the price of cigarettes has skyrocketed in the past 10 years, helping to drive down the smoking rate.

* Spurred partly by outrage that sprang from Waxman’s hearings, more and more states and cities have passed smoking bans. Not only do smoking bans help drive down the smoking rate (because a lot of casual smokers only smoke in bars, and therefore, it gives them a good excuse to quit), they also protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke.

* The FDA was given regulatory authority over tobacco in 2009. The first thing the agency did was ban candy-flavoured cigarettes, which are popular with kids.

* The smoking rate and teen smoking rate have declined since 1998, but not dramatically. The smoking rate was around 24-25 percent in 1998, and today it’s pretty much stuck at about 20 percent. The smoking rate for teens is a little harder to pin down, because few teens are what you would call “regular smokers,” but the percentage of teens who were smoking dropped from 28 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2010. However, that drop has stalled the last few years, probably because of the cut in tobacco education funding.

* Class-action suits against Big Tobacco have been halted, but individual lawsuits are still being allowed. In Florida, a Supreme Court decision there in 2006 allowed thousands of individual lawsuits to go forward against Big Tobacco for lying about the safety of “light cigarattes,” etc. So far, juries have awarded hundreds of millions of dollars for plaintiffs, with hundreds more suits in the works. None of those judgments have been paid out, however, as Big Tobacco is appealing all the verdicts. the industry will be dealing with these lawsuits for at least the next decade, maybe longer.

This entry was posted in Big Tobacco, Lollilard, phillip Morris, RJ Reynolds, Tobacco, tobacco litigation, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to How Big Tobacco got away with the Crime of the Century

  1. Ando says:

    Great article Pepe.
    You’re not gonna believe this but we actually had a smoking area in the high school I attended when I was a teenager. No one carded teenagers for cigarettes back then and almost everyone I was friends with smoked. I didn’t start smoking until I was 20. My brand? You guessed it, Camel lights! It was at the height of the Joe Camel add campaign. They had these camel cash coupons you could send off for free stuff. They should have called it cancer cash.

    Anyway nice job.

    • Pepe Lepew says:

      I remember they had a smoking area at my high school in the 1980s. Unbelievable.

      Oh, I can make fancy smileys here. Facebook smileys

      • Excellent- love it, Pepe. We were all immersed in it, all the time…

      • BIg Marijuana is doing the exact same thing now – lieing about addiction – it is unbelievable.

        • Pepe Lepew says:

          Hello, thanks for commenting.

          I don’t think I would completely agree with you about pot. I have had some major knock down drag outs with pot advocates, and sometimes I think they’re engaging in the same kind of PR campaign the tobacco industry did many years ago (the biggest headache they’ve given me is insisting that it’s perfectly safe to drive a vehicle after smoking pot, and that being high will actually make you a better driver). Though, I’m not a huge fan of pot, I don’t think it has the same level of addictiveness as nicotine. While some people can become addicted to pot (again, I’ve butted heads with pot advocates who claim this is impossible), most people who smoke pot do not become addicted. I see pot as similar to alcohol in that way. Whereas *everyone* will become addicted to nicotine if you smoke tobacco. I see nicotine as being similar to heroin in that sense.

          Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • brian says:

        The tobacco companies are murderers.

  2. M Cubed says:

    Darn good article, Pepe. I find it so hard to believe the executives did not believe their products were addictive, even though they were experimenting with the chemicals in the the product to make them more addictive!
    Here is an article you might find interesting. It is about how Big Tobacco gets academicians to testify in court. They are really happy to throw their money around for the right sort of research.

  3. jackhole says:

    Dude I’m so fucking angry now I can write anything that would be comprehensive so I’ll just say thanks.

  4. Very good work, Pepe- an A+ for sure. I remember a lot of this going down, but I did not know the details, and thank you for writing this! 🙂

  5. BassFace says:

    Great piece of work, Pepe!!!

    My dad, I’m sure, would have a few choice words to say to those bastards. I’m going to print this and send a copy down to him in Vero Beach (or take it with me when I go down there next month for a weekend-visit)…

  6. classicalgastoo says:

    Excellent article, Pepe! A+ for research and presentation.

  7. Pingback: Everybody Knows | Frank Davis


    Some folks are still paying the Big Tobacco price. See ‘The Insider”, starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, Touchstone Pictures. Brown and Williamson lackeys pulled a 500 page document to try to smear Jeffrey Wigand, Whistleblower and flawed human being.
    Errol Tyrone Olson

  9. Mr. Ford says:

    Excellent allocation! There is much info I don’t about big tobacco and really pleased to learn some historic lessons from here. Thanks for useful allocation.

  10. ashd says:

    Great Article!

  11. Mike Donnelly says:

    Excellent article. I’m working on an article on the movie _Thank You for Smoking_, and wondered if you have any sources other than Brandt’s book. Help?

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  14. Great article – The Cigarette Century should be mandatory reading in Grade 10 highschool.

  15. Dwight Watson says:

    Big tobacco is Washington D.C. The lawyers are getting over on We The People. The Feds will lock you up if you plant low NICOTINE tobacco. It’s Federal Law Title 7 CFR 1464.3._Follow the money and you will see Big Tobacco is Washington D.C. and the lawyers.dw


  16. teuresti says:

    Why do I have to be a second class citizen for For being addicted to a drug that was and continues to be available for me to purchase why do I have to pay taxes on something that I was seduced into starting when I was a kid? Why am I still unable to quit knowing that it has killed my sister my father my brother my uncle my grandparents and many other family members and friends? why am I not why is the federal government continuing to be my drug dealer? why am I on Medicaid and not getting the medical treatment that I should get for the many chronic illnesses I had acquired through this nasty habit of smoking? the truth is the government does not want to lose the tax it is because there is big money to be made on this product that is obviously addicting and people will pay whatever the cost to have it they put a warning label on the cigarette pack and think that it is my responsibility to make a choice to put my health in danger. yes it is my choice and I paid dearly for it. it’s my choice to to indulge in whatever Chemicals I want. the only difference is the one that is going to kill me and was warned and and predicted for children by my own family members as they were dying :is the one thing that is most available to me. it’s more expensive than the street drugs that I like to occasionally used recreationally having to fear getting arrested for it. that is only because it cannot be taxed. to be honest with you I wish I would be arrested every time I went to the store and bought a pack of cigarettes patient fines for being caught smoking in public. put my children in prison and drug court every time they are caught smoking . I wish that I can help and contributing to my own medical care and lessen the burden of American taxpayers by not spending up to $15 a day in cigarettes just between me and my husband. sometimes $30 a day. this is $2 at most per pack but tax is up to $4 per pack this is to supposedly force me to want to quit smoking or at least cut down well it hasn’t done that for me. and I know I’m not alone. The federal government is exploiting my addiction The tobacco industry Is no different than the Mexican drug cartel. . tobacco industry is no better than or terrorist group in the world they’re responsib why am I beingle for millions upon
    millions of deaths worldwide and the suffering is long and horrendous. this country know the truth they don’t care I will continue to smoke thanks for the warning and and you’re my destiny the same can be said with alcohol. even worse so war on drugs please spare me. you may as well legalize drugs find a way to text it like marijuana drug use is never going to go away and never has just feel like the pharmaceutical companies find a way to market put a warning label on it and the and do what major money making companies do costing

    • Pepe Lepew says:

      You have nothing but empathy from me, having watched my brother struggle for 10 years to quit smoking and watching my mom smoke herself into an oxygen tank after watching her husband die of lung cancer. This blog you are commenting on is my old blog, here is my new blog:

    • Dwight Watson says:

      The tobacco farmers receive .10 cents for the tobacco in a pack of cigarettes. The Federal, State and Local government receives $ 2.56 tax (average of the all the government’s tax per pack.) That translates into $ 2 dollars per pound of tobacco for the farmer and $ 56 dollars per pound for the government. Big tobacco is the government. The government was involved in aspect of what the tobacco companies an Tobacco farmers did and are still today. What is killing everyone who smokes is the Pesticide Residue on the tobacco that the USDA tells the farmer to use, once you light the cigarette the burning of the tobacco reenergizes the poison. The tobacco companies and farmers have been telling the government this since the 1950’s. People who smoke should quit or buy the American Spirit brand that uses Organically grown tobacco. The Company’s name is Santa Fee tobacco located in Oxford N.C.

      • Pepe Lepew says:

        Well, Dwight, I can’t agree with you that American Spirit cigarettes are really any different from other brands. Are you aware that American Spirit is actually an RJ Reynolds brand? It’s not an independent company. RJ Reynolds bought American Spirit in 2001. And the FDA has cracked down on American Spirit for suggesting that its cigarettes are somehow less harmful than other brands:
        Not only that, but a class-action lawsuit has been filed against American Spirit for false advertising about its “additive free” claims:

        • dwight Watson says:

          Pepe you are misinformed. I spent my entire adult life in the Tobacco Division of the USDA except for the Two years I served in the U.S. Army, 15 months of the 2 years in the 82nd Airborne Division. The President of the USA in in charge of the NICOTINE in tobacco. The USDA leads the way of insuring rich nicotine tobacco varieties are grown by the U.S tobacco farmers. If the tobacco companies had done anything illegal the Feds would have prosecuted the tobacco companies. President Bill Clinton’s own Justice department investigated the tobacco industry for 5 years and found no wrong doing by the Industry. Big tobacco is the Federal government in Washington D.C. There is a Federal law for Tobacco Seed all the way to when the cigarette is smoked. People should quit smoking or go to cigarettes made with organically grown Tobacco. NICOTINE is why people smoke. People will not smoke tobacco with no NICOTINE. Pesticide residue on the tobacco is what’s killing millions of smokers. Organic grown Tobacco will solve the health issues from Smoking.

          • Pepe Lepew says:

            The thing of it is, the USDA is no longer in charge of nicotine products, the Food and Drug Administration is, and has been for roughly 10 years, which if you were in the USDA, I’d assume you’d know. The tobacco companies did plenty illegal, which is why they settled a $280 BILLION court settlement with various states and why they have lost hundreds of millions more, if not billions more, in other court settlements. The U.S. Justice Department also sued the tobacco industry and federal courts found the tobacco industry guilty of violating RICO racketeering statutes under the Obama administration, which again, if you were involved in the regulatory side of the business, you really ought to know. Link:'s_racketeering_case_against_Big_Tobacco. You should also know that American Spirit has the same level of nicotine and other toxins as other brands and they have been ordered by the FDA to cease and desist with their false advertising that their cigarettes are somehow safer than other brands. That order is currently in abeyance as both parties negotiate a settlement. There is also a major class-action lawsuit that has been filed against American Spirit for false advertising that its products are safer. I don’t know if you’re somehow a spokesman for American Spirit or what, but I simply don’t buy what you’re trying to sell me. I don’t know if this is you or what:, but I know my stuff, and I’m having a hard time believing you’re being honest with me about your actual involvement in the government.

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  18. Brian says:

    They are murdering people that is worse than not telling the truth.

  19. Mira says:

    I feel for all who are addicted to any type of smoking substance. I appologize to all of you because I cannot be around the smoke, as my lungs are so sensitive to it, I should be living on a deserted island somewhere where there is not pollution. My whole life my lungs literally close up if I get within a whiff of smoke. That means no campfires for me, no barbeques, and absolutely NO smoking around me of ANYTHING, no matter what the substance is. There are some of us like me out there. It’s really really sad that you guys got scammed by Big Tobacco, and no, you aren’t some weirdo cult – you are all human beings who were taken advantage of by big industry, but the fact is, smoking, fires, incense all that stuff, it’s been around longer than Big Tobacco. It’s as old as the human race if you look at history.
    So I say, we should all band together as human beings and help each other, whether it’s to help someone like me whose lungs are trashed while I never ever smoked anything, or to help those who feel bad about smoking, or to help those who need help adjusting (whether adjusting OFF the stuff or some other choice) and just PULL Together for the human race.
    Too bad it couldn’t be just that easy, but you know, it only takes a spark to like a fire … how about it everyone? Do you guys want to just stand there tossing arguments or find a solution that fits for each of us? (and every person’s solution has to be their own choice!)
    Take care all – and if the world gets cleaner of tobacco people with my disability might actually have a chance to survive.

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