Words are powerful tools. Those who write for public consumption are obliged to consider the precision and implication of each syllable. On one level, this is a matter of proper use. Does the writer mean ‘immanent,’ ‘eminent,’ or ‘imminent’? On another, it’s a matter of narrative style. Does the word in question convey the thought fluidly? Does it obfuscate or clarify? Language is subtle, yet infinite. It spurs both romance and war. It builds. It destroys.
With this as backdrop, U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler has just handed down a decision with substantial linguistic and legal consequences. The case at issue stems from the fact that major tobacco companies spent decades denying they lied to the U.S. public about the dangers of cigarettes. Under the terms of Kessler’s ruling, they must now spend their own money on a public advertising campaign admitting their deliberate deception.
In describing the potential impact of Kessler’s decision, the Chicago Tribune’s David Ingram wrote, “The ruling sets out what might be the harshest sanction to come out of a historic case that the Justice Department brought in 1999 accusing the tobacco companies of racketeering.”
Indeed. The ruling, which is likely to be appealed, is far more than an adjustment in semantic details. According to Kessler’s terms, the advertisements are to be published across several types of media for as long as two years. Many of the details — how much will be spent, where the ads must run, exactly what must be said — have yet to be determined; and they are the likely fodder for prolonged battle.
Part of Kessler’s ruling on Tuesday was to finalize the wording of five different statements the companies will be required to use. The statements are unvarnished, which is the antithesis of all the tobacco industry previously promulgated. Among the required statements are: “A federal court has ruled that the defendant tobacco companies deliberately deceived the American public by falsely selling and advertising low tar and light cigarettes as less harmful than regular cigarettes.”
Another states: “Smoking kills, on average, 1,200 Americans. Every day.”
Of course the U.S. tobacco industry is no stranger to advertising campaigns. According to the Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s largest tobacco companies spent an average of $2.19 million dollars every day of 2010 to advertise their goods. Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man aren’t indelibly etched into the American collective conscious by accident.
Naturally, (perhaps the only “natural” thing these companies do) Big Tobacco’s lawyers are attempting to frame this ruling as an infringement on their right of free speech. Here again had we not gone the dangerous path of declaring corporations “people,” that dubious milking stool of logic would have no legs.
Even so, their public response thus far has been low key. “We are reviewing the judge’s ruling and considering next steps,” said Bryan Hatchell, a spokesman for Reynolds American Inc.
Like most legal processes, this one has dragged on for several years. Kessler first ordered the advertising campaign in 2006. The interim has been spent in debate about the wording and where the ads must run. Back in 2006 Kessler wrote that the idea was to “structure a remedy which uses the same vehicles which defendants have themselves historically used to promulgate false smoking and health messages..”
As the parties argued over format and wording, the nature of media has changed substantially. As Kessler indicated in Tuesday’s decision, “The types of media in which defendants convey commercial messages of this nature have changed dramatically.” Perhaps, she added, “the ads should also be in the online versions of newspapers.”
We’re all for it.