Federal prosecutors raised many eyebrows on Tuesday when they asked a court to impose only a $10 billion penalty on tobacco firms to counter a half century of deceptive cigarette marketing.
The government's own expert witness had testified that a $130 billion fine was needed. Why the drastic drop? Either the government should explain this suspicious disparity (was there political pressure?) or the court should stick with the higher figure.
Cigarette manufacturers settled with the states for $246 billion in 1998. This federal case, begun in 1999, is trying to achieve what states didn't - a change in the practices of the tobacco industry. Tobacco companies still deceptively market cigarettes, e.g., candy flavored smokes. Having made a very strong case for the need to fund antismoking programs, federal attorneys appear to have undercut the revenue necessary to counter the multibillion-dollar marketing that supported what in court they characterized as a coverup.
The fact remains that smoking is addictive and harmful. Marketing to children is especially egregious because tobacco products are obviously available to children who, by the hundreds, become daily habitual users.
Financial penalties are still the best way to change the industry's behavior. A more permanent solution lies in granting the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate cigarettes, subjecting tobacco products to the kind of regulation required of substances classified as drugs.