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5 things the tobacco industry didn’t do until it was forced to

Using cartoons to sell cigarettes to kids, lying about the health effects of smoking, paying for product placement in youth movies — the list of misdeeds by the tobacco industry is long. Worse yet, tobacco companies didn't stop or attempt to rectify some of their worst offenses until they were forced to by new regulations or a court order.  

Most recently, the four largest tobacco companies in the U.S. were forced to publish statements about the deadly and harmful effects of cigarettes on their websites this month. These statements, which started running as print and TV ads in November, were court-ordered by a federal judge who convicted the companies of civil racketeering and found them to have systematically defrauded the American public with their lies. 

Here's a list of five things the tobacco industry has been forced to do to rectify or cease actions that defrauded the public or deliberately targeted kids. 

1. Admit that cigarette smoking causes disease and death and that tobacco products are addictive

Eleven years after a federal judge found that the tobacco industry violated civil racketeering laws in 2006, tobacco companies are being forced to run court-ordered TV and newspaper ads, as well as statements on their websites, about how they manipulated cigarettes and lied about the harmful effects of cigarettes. Big Tobacco spent 11 years fighting to weaken the language of the ads. During this delay, more than 5 million people died from tobacco, still the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the U.S.

2. Disclose that “light” and “low-tar” cigarettes are not safer than regular cigarettes and stop selling them

The verdict in the 2006 racketeering case also mandated that tobacco companies disclose another thing that they already knew: “light” and “low-tar” cigarettes are not safer than regular cigarettes. In fact, we know now that these types of cigarettes actually caused more harm by making people less likely to quit. Research has proven that there is no safe cigarette, and that all cigarettes cause cancer, lung disease, heart attacks and premature death. The Tobacco Control Act, passed in 2009, prohibited using descriptors like these on cigarette packaging and advertising without Food and Drug Administration approval.

3. Stop using cartoons to sell cigarettes to kids

Public pressure forced tobacco company R.J. Reynolds to retire its Camel brand cartoon mascot Joe Camel — which one research study concluded was almost as familiar to 6-year-olds as Mickey Mouse — just a year before it was legally obligated to. The practice of using cartoons to sell cigarettes to kids, however, wasn’t outlawed until the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement — which was the result of civil litigation brought by 46 U.S. states, Washington, D.C. and five territories against major U.S. tobacco companies — put an end to it.

4. End TV and movie product placements

“Grease,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “The Muppet Movie” are just a few of the most prominent examples of tobacco companies supplying cigarettes for use on screen in youth entertainment. The practice of paid product placement was halted when the MSA banned it.

While paid product placement is prohibited, smoking is still prevalent in on-screen entertainment. For example, 79 percent of the streaming shows most popular with young people depict smoking prominently.

5. Stop giving away free samples of cigarettes

Distributing free samples used to be a tobacco industry strategy for attracting new customers. For example, tobacco companies distributed free samples out of vans in inner city neighborhoods and even gave away free cigarettes on playgrounds. Lorillard Tobacco Company famously settled a lawsuit for $79 million brought by the family of a woman who received a steady supply of free cigarettes on a playground near her school as early as 9 years old and died of lung cancer at 54. Tobacco product sampling (except for smokeless tobacco in adult-only facilities) was banned by the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act and FDA’s 2016 deeming regulation.

Today, coupons and discounting have virtually taken the place of free sampling. The tobacco industry spends the vast majority of its nearly $1 million per hour marketing budget on lowering the price of its products.

Read more about what tobacco advertising restrictions look like today.