WASHINGTON – A federal judge said Friday she will consider the views of anti-smoking and health advocates if she decides to impose sanctions against cigarette makers in the U.S. government's racketeering case against against the industry.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler granted a motion by six anti-smoking groups to intervene as formal parties to the lawsuit, saying the Justice Department (search) "no longer adequately represents those (groups') interests" because it had scaled back its request for sanctions against the industry.
"The government no longer shares the views of (the anti- smoking groups) as to how extensive the appropriate remedies should be in this case ...," Kessler wrote in an 11-page ruling.
The groups, including the Tobacco Free Kids Action Fund (search), the American Cancer Society (search), the American Heart Association (search) and the American Lung Association (search), have criticized as inadequate scaled back legal remedies being sought by the government.
A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment on the ruling.
But an official with one of the health groups, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (search), said the ruling was "an unmistakable message to the Justice Department that she has serious concerns about the way they are pursuing this case."
"If the government is not representing the interests of the American heart, cancer and lung associations, it's not representing the nation's public health interests," said William Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.
A spokesman for Altria Group Inc. unit Philip Morris USA said the company disagreed with the ruling. Cigarette makers had opposed the intervention of the anti-smoking groups.
"This case is not a public policy forum, and regardless of how well intentioned the intervenors positions are, they reflect a profound misunderstanding of the facts and the law that must be considered in deciding this case," Philip Morris USA associate general counsel William Ohlemeyer said in a statement.
Targeted in the 1999 lawsuit are: Altria Group Inc. (MO) and Philip Morris USA (search); Loews Corp.'s (LTR) Lorillard Tobacco unit, which has a tracking stock, Carolina Group (CG); Vector Group Ltd.'s (VGR) Liggett Group; Reynolds American Inc.'s (RAI) R.J. Reynolds Tobacco unit and British American Tobacco Plc unit British American Tobacco Investments Ltd.
The companies deny they illegally conspired to promote smoking and say the federal government has no grounds to pursue them or impose additional restrictions after they drastically overhauled marketing practices in a 1998 states settlement.
In her ruling Friday, Kessler rejected the tobacco companies' argument that the health groups lacked legal standing to be recognized by the court and had not filed their request early enough.
Kessler said the groups' expertise with smoking and health issues would be valuable, given the "magnitude" of the case and its possible impact on the public.
She made note of the government's decision to drastically cut back the remedies it was seeking.
The government in June asked Kessler to require cigarette makers to fund a $10 billion quit-smoking program and pay $4 billion for an anti-smoking education campaign to remedy decades of alleged fraud by the industry.
But the request angered anti-smoking groups because it was only a fraction of the $130 billion, 25-year quit-smoking program recommended by a government witness.