US government to sue tobacco companies

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 02 October 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:869
  1. Scott Gottlieb
  1. New York

    The United States Justice Department has filed a massive civil lawsuit against the country's major tobacco companies, seeking to recover billions of dollars in long term costs related to treating ill smokers covered by the government health programmes.

    The lawsuit alleges that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer and other diseases that have resulted in an estimated $25bn (£15.6bn) in annual health claims paid by the government. The suit also claims that tobacco firms conspired to conceal the risks of smoking from the public.

    In terms of damages sought, the suit is the largest ever brought by the Department of Justice. The landmark filing was announced by the attorney general, Janet Reno, and brought at the behest of President Clinton as announced in his State of the Union address earlier this year.

    The tobacco industry has been under intense legal pressure since 1994, when states began to file multibillion dollar claims against the tobacco industry, to recoup the cost of caring for people with smoking related disease through Medicaid (the federal state health insurance programme), which pays for the health care of poor and disabled people.

    Those suits were settled last year for $246bn—of which $206bn came in one large settlement by 46 states—which will be paid by smokers through higher prices. The settlement came after the collapse of an effort to write federal legislation that would have substantially increased the cost of cigarettes through taxes and would have restricted the marketing of tobacco.

    “Smoking is the nation's largest preventable cause of death and disease, and American taxpayers should not have to bear the responsibility for the staggering costs,” Ms Reno said. “For more than 45 years, the cigarette companies conducted their business without regard to the truth, the law, or the health of the American people.”

    Full story in News Extra at

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    President Clinton talks to reporters about the lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice against tobacco companies

    (Credit: AP/GREG GIBSON)

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