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Big tobacco is finally forced to tell the truth

Fact: Cigarettes were manipulated by tobacco companies to make them more addictive.

Fact: Rather than quit, many smokers switched to “light” cigarettes because they were promoted as less harmful. They are not.

Fact: Smoking kills 1,200 Americans every day. More people die from smoking than from murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes and alcohol combined.

You may have heard recently how the tobacco industry is being forced to share those facts, under court order. Here’s some quick background; it’s a saga stretching back two decades, but stick with me.

A long time coming

Way back in 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against the nation’s largest cigarette manufacturers for fraudulent and unlawful conduct. In 2006, a federal judge found the tobacco companies in violation of the RICO Act, which combats racketeers like the Mafia — and Big Tobacco.

The judge ordered them to run “corrective statement” ads to address areas where they defrauded and deceived the public, including: the harm of low-tar or light cigarettes, the addictive nature of nicotine and how the companies manipulated it to create and sustain dependence, and the harmful effects of smoking and secondhand smoke.

Then, teams of tobacco industry lawyers fought for more than a decade against the court-ordered ads. Only after they exhausted every legal appeal did they finally start to run the ads.

Big Tobacco had to be dragged kicking and screaming to this point. They’ve literally fought for decades – and as a veteran of the tobacco trials of the 1990s, I know how hard they can fight – to avoid telling the truth: truth that could have saved countless lives if it had been told a generation ago.

Ads decidedly watered down

Unfortunately, the ads in their final form are a bit weak. Big Tobacco litigated practically every word, and as a result they feel decidedly watered down. More than that, they seem designed to be “un-memorable” – black text on a plain white background. And here in Minnesota they’re only appearing in a very limited run on broadcast TV and in one small newspaper. Although we’re living in the 21st century, there is no social media component to their campaign.

Fortunately, the good people of Minnesota are working to share the truth the tobacco companies fought so hard to keep under wraps. Health advocates including the Association for Nonsmokers Minnesota, ClearWay Minnesota, local chapters of the American Heart Association, Lung Association and Cancer Society and others have launched their own campaign to “correct the corrective statements.”

The health coalition ads feature information Big Tobacco left out. They highlight the industry’s callousness and willingness to prey on all of us, including our youth, by marketing products to young people to attract new customers, covering up what they knew about the dangers of their products and deceiving the public – again and again. You can see them for yourself at

The coalition’s print ads have a much broader distribution than the industry’s, and their digital ads reach a younger audience. Maybe the tobacco companies steered clear of social media because they consider young people their prime market to hook new customers. You be the judge.

Always courting new, young users

The tobacco companies’ manipulation and lies continue to take a tragic toll in Minnesota. Each year in our state, tobacco use causes more than 6,000 deaths and costs $7 billion in excess health care expenses and lost productivity. Still, as always, the tobacco industry is evolving and creating addictive new products, so it can continue courting new, young users as replacement customers for those who quit or die.

That’s why we must do more to protect our young people. There are steps Minnesota can take to counter the tobacco industry and to create a smoke-free generation. Raising the tobacco age to 21 (which has now been proposed at the state level), restricting sales of flavored tobacco products, keeping tobacco prices high and funding tobacco prevention will all help keep today’s young people from becoming tomorrow’s tobacco statistics. 

We are slowly turning the tide on tobacco’s deadly toll, but the battle is far from over and our well-funded enemy is a formidable foe. An important part of that fight is continuing to reveal the true nature of the tobacco industry – how it preys on youth, deceives the public, and makes its profits off addiction.

The corrective statements will help raise awareness, but it will take much more than a few ads to offset the decades of misinformation Big Tobacco has sown to sell its lethal products. And the truth comes far too late for so many Minnesotans.

Attorney Hubert H. “Skip” Humphrey III served as Minnesota’s attorney general from 1983 to 1999. In ’99 the World Health Organization awarded Humphrey the Director-General’s Prize for outstanding global contribution to tobacco control. It was awarded “for his key role in gaining public access to millions of papers in which the tobacco industry has recorded its practices in creating addictive consumer goods.”


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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 02/05/2018 - 09:49 am.

    Big Gambling…

    We could substitute gambling for tobacco and the results and collusion would be similar. Of course, big gambling is promoted by the State.

  2. Submitted by vernae hasbargen on 02/05/2018 - 03:05 pm.

    Thank you General Humphrey

    for protecting us from big tobacco with your courageous law suit. You won the case by exposing for the first time tobacco’s fake research and false advertising. The settlement led to such an effective anti-smoking campaign that twenty years later, fewer Minnesotans smoke than ever before and all of us understand tobacco’s harm.

  3. Submitted by John DeWitt on 02/05/2018 - 04:22 pm.

    Cigarette Century

    I would highly recommend “The Cigarette Century” by Alan Brandt, a medical historian at Harvard. He describes the many techniques the tobacco industry used to attract new smokers. Many American women served as nurses in Europe during WW1 and picked up smoking over there. But in the U.S., smoking by women was still frowned upon. To overcome that, the tobacco companies hired groups of attractive young women to march in parades carrying their “Freedom Torches.”

    My father died when he was 58, a victim of TB and smoking. He had gotten TB in 1930 while a senior at the University of Toronto and wound up in Calydor, a TB sanatorium in Gravenhurst, Ontario. His diary from that period had pictures of some of his friends there and I was puzzled as it looked like some of them were holding cigarettes. A later diary entry noted “Mother brought me a pack of cigarettes today.” Apparently smoking in a TB sanatorium in 1930 was perfectly OK. Later, while recuperating in Tucson, Arizona, he wrote that he had received 200 “Spuds” as a Christmas present. Wikipedia informed me that Spuds were an early menthol cigarette. In a letter to a friend a few years before he died, he admitted to fighting a three pack a day habit. I guess this was a success story for the tobacco industry.

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