WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court blocked a landmark judgment against the tobacco industry Tuesday, allowing the companies to continue selling "light" and "low tar" cigarettes until their appeals can be reviewed.
The decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit also allows the companies to continue for now the advertising campaigns that a federal judge in August ruled were misleading.
Without comment, the appeals court granted the tobacco companies' request to put Judge Gladys Kessler's order on hold. The companies have argued that her far-reaching ruling could cost them millions of dollars and lead to a loss of customers.
In mid-August, Kessler ruled that the companies had violated racketeering laws and conspired for decades to mislead the public about the health hazards of smoking.
The judge ordered the companies to publish in newspapers and on their Web sites "corrective statements" on the adverse health effects and addictiveness of smoking and nicotine.
She also ordered tobacco companies to stop labeling cigarettes as "low tar," "light," "ultra light" or "mild," since such cigarettes have been found to be no safer than others because of how people smoke them.
Kessler's ruling was appealed by Philip Morris USA, Lorillard Inc., Brown & Williamson Corp. and British American Tobacco PLC.
"The company believes the trial court's decision is contrary to the law and facts presented during trial, and looks forward to the opportunity to present its arguments to the appellate court.," said William S. Ohlemeyer, vice president and associate general counsel for Altria Group Inc., the parent company of Philip Morris.
William V. Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the appeals court stay was not surprising.
"Judge Kessler's finding was that these companies have lied to the American people for 50 years," Corr said. "We're confident that, if it means going all the way to the Supreme Court, the government's case will be vindicated and the industry will be held accountable."
The Justice Department declined comment.
The three-judge appeals court panel was divided 2-1 on whether to block the order, with Republican-appointed Judges David B. Sentelle and A. Raymond Randolph in the majority and Democratic appointee Judge David S. Tatel in dissent.
The court will consider written and oral arguments in the case. No date has been set for arguments. It could be more than a year before an opinion is released.