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After 11 years of fighting a court order, major U.S. tobacco companies admit smoking health effects

After 11 years of fighting a court order, major U.S. tobacco companies will be placing ads on TV, radio and in newspapers admitting they deceived the public about the health effects of smoking.

"While the tobacco companies were fighting in the courts, nearly 80,000 Oregonians died from causes linked to tobacco," said Emily Wegener, Tobacco Prevention Coordinator for Jefferson County Public Health.

The court order dates back to 2006, when U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler found that tobacco companies had violated civil racketeering laws and defrauded people in America for decades.

In her 1,683-page decision, Judge Kessler detailed how the tobacco companies "have marketed and sold their lethal products with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted." She concluded, "The evidence in this case clearly establishes that defendants have not ceased engaging in unlawful activity."

The tobacco companies Lorillard Inc., Altria (owner of Philip Morris USA) and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. were ordered to publish TV and newspaper ads on five topics for a year:

. The adverse health effects of smoking. The ads are required to run this phrase verbatim: "More people die every year from smoking than from murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashed and alcohol, combined."

. The addictiveness of smoking and nicotine, including the phrase: "Cigarette companies intentionally designed cigarettes with enough nicotine to create and sustain addiction."

. The lack of significant health benefits from smoking low tar, light, ultra-light, mild, or natural cigarettes.

. The manipulation of cigarette design to ensure optimum nicotine delivery.

. The adverse health effects of exposure to secondhand smoke, including the phrase: "Secondhand smoke kills over 38,000 Americans each year."

Wegener noted in 1994, U.S. Rep. Ron Wyden asked a row of tobacco industry executives, one after the other, if the nicotine in cigarettes is addictive. They all said no.

"We now know they were lying. Their products are the leading cause of preventable death in Oregon, the U.S., and the world. In Oregon, tobacco is the cause of nearly 8,000 deaths every year, with 46 alone in Jefferson County," Wegener said.

Research has shown that 90 percent of smokers begin smoking before the age of 18. While the U.S. hasn't seen television advertisements for tobacco since 1971, the tobacco industry markets to children in other ways, especially in the retail environment.

"Tobacco is cheap and available in flavors to attract kids. In Jefferson County, almost 6 percent of eighth- and 12 percent of 11th-graders reported smoking cigarettes in the last 30 days. Over 20 percent of adults in Jefferson County reported tobacco use," Wegener said.

Wegner is working to reduce those numbers through policy implementation that helps to protect youth access to tobacco products and exposure to advertising, and through systems changes that prevent people from beginning to smoke, and helps those who do smoke to quit.

Oregon is a longtime leader in tobacco prevention. The Tobacco Quit Line, launched in 1998, made Oregon the first state to offer over-the-phone support to tobacco users who want to quit.

In 2007, the state passed the Indoor Clean Air Act, a workplace law protecting people from secondhand smoke. The law was expanded in 2016 to include e-cigarettes, vape pens and more.

Most recently, Oregon became the fifth state to pass Tobacco 21, increasing the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21.

For more information about tobacco prevention and the work being done in Jefferson County, visit http://smokefreeoregon.com/what-you-can-do/jefferson-county-2.

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