Tobacco companies seek Supreme Court review of racketeering verdict

By Chris Rizo | Feb 22, 2010

U.S. Supreme Court building

WASHINGTON - Three major tobacco companies are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review a racketeering verdict against cigarette makers over the marketing of so-called light cigarettes.

Altria Group Inc.'s Philip Morris USA unit, Lorillard Inc. and the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco unit of Reynolds American Inc. are asking the nation's highest court to review an appeals court decision in the case.

In May, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed the verdict against the cigarette makers, finding that the companies violated federal anti-racketeering laws by conspiring to hide the dangers of smoking cigarettes.

At trial, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler in Washington ruled in 2006 that the cigarette companies could no longer use misleading designations such as "low tar" or "light" in their marketing campaigns.

In a 1,653-page opinion, Kessler wrote that the defendant cigarette companies "marketed and sold their lethal product with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs."

In its appeal, Philip Morris accused the government of misusing the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly referred to as RICO, to go after them.

"Absent further review, the government will henceforth be free to pervert RICO into a device for evading the legislative process, penalizing and chilling public debate on scientific matters, and constraining constitutionally protected speech through vague and sweeping injunctions," the tobacco company wrote in its appeal.

The 1999 original case was filed by the Clinton administration, which sought $289 billion in damages. At trial, which began in 2004, the U.S. Justice Department under the Bush administration reduced the federal government's demands to $14 billion for anti-smoking efforts.

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