A US judge has convicted the tobacco industry of orchestrating a sinister conspiracy stretching back decades to cover up the lethal effects of smoking.
Washington federal judge Gladys Kessler on Thursday ordered a ban from next January on the use of terms such as "light", "low tar" and "mild" on cigarette packets.
But she prompted an outcry from campaigners by rejecting government demands for "Big Tobacco" to fund a 10-billion-dollar stop-smoking campaign. Nor did she agree to forbid cigarette advertising in motor sports.
Nevertheless, Kessler endorsed the government's central argument that the tobacco giants had systematically tried to distort the fact that smoking kills.
"Despite internal recognition of this fact, defendants have publicly denied, distorted and minimized the hazards of smoking for decades," she ruled in a 1,683-page opinion issued at the end of a two-year trial.
One of the defendants, Philip Morris's parent Altria Group, said it would appeal on the grounds that much of Kessler's decision was not supported by the law and appeared to be "constitutionally impermissible".
The other defendants were American Tobacco, British American Tobacco (BAT), Brown and Williamson Tobacco, Lorillard Tobacco and RJ Reynolds Tobacco.
Kessler ordered the firms to take out advertisements on national television and in major newspapers to spell out the truth about smoking that they sought so long to hide.
The Department of Justice said it was "pleased with the court's finding of liability on the part of the defendants, but disappointed that the court did not impose all of the remedies sought by the government".
"Nevertheless, we are hopeful that the remedies that were imposed by the court can have a significant, positive impact on the health of the American public," it said in a brief statement.
Using an anti-racketeering law that was designed to hunt down gangland mobsters, the government sued the tobacco industry in 1999, alleging it had pursued an elaborate conspiracy to cover up the risks of smoking.
The lawsuit came a year after American states won a landmark settlement worth 246 billion dollars aimed at recovering the costs of treating smokers from the tobacco industry.
Cigarette makers will be back on the defensive after Kessler catalogued their deceptions down the years, including savage attacks on anti-smoking advice issued by the US surgeon-general.
She noted that up to the 1970s, tobacco executives continually insisted that they would be happy to remove any harmful elements from cigarettes "if and when" they were identified.
They knew full well from research by their in-house scientists that nicotine, for instance, was highly addictive.
The ruling quoted Joseph Cullman, then-president of Philip Morris, as "falsely" denying in a 1971 television interview that cigarettes posed a risk to pregnant women or their babies.
"It's true that babies born from women who smoke are smaller, but they are just as healthy as the babies born to women who do not smoke," Cullman said.
"Some women would prefer to have smaller babies."
The Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids said the industry was "guilty as charged -- guilty of lying to the American people and marketing their deadly and addictive products to our children at untold cost in lives and suffering".
But the group urged the government to appeal for stricter constraints on the industry's future conduct.
The American Heart Association said tobacco firms' "misdeeds have finally been exposed", but complained that Kessler's remedies amounted to no more than "a slap on the wrist".
Copyright © 2006 AFP