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The Legal Battle Against Big Tobacco

March 31st marks World No Tobacco Day, a holiday created by the World Health Organization to remind us all of the dangers of tobacco use and all the tobacco industry has done to cover up those dangers. Today we all know that cigarettes are both highly addictive and terrible for your health, but this widespread knowledge was only possible due to decades of legal battles that could have had very different outcomes.

The tobacco industry's relationship with the public health landscape has long been contentious. In the mid-20th century, evidence linking smoking to severe health risks started to emerge. It was during this time that tobacco companies faced their first legal challenges. In 1954, the groundbreaking "Tobacco and Health" study was published, marking a turning point in public awareness. This prompted a slew of minor lawsuits against tobacco companies. These early lawsuits mostly centered around negligent manufacturing, false advertising, and inadequate product warnings. The tobacco companies fought back in full force against these early lawsuits, refusing to settle out of court, and winning almost every lawsuit. The U.S. Surgeon General was undeterred, though, and ultimately issued a landmark report in 1964, unequivocally linking smoking to lung cancer.

As public awareness of tobacco-related health risks grew, so too did the legal battles that ensued against the tobacco industry. Tobacco companies, which had previously argued so fervently against the idea that cigarettes were unhealthy, lost so much ground in these law suits that by the 1980s, they had begun arguing that cigarette smokers were willingly accepting the health risks by smoking cigarettes--an argument that rings especially hollow when you realize that they actually used doctors to advertise cigarettes before it became illegal for them to do so.

The ground that tobacco manufacturers lost in the 80's was nothing compared to the 90's, though. When internal documents were leaked proving that tobacco companies were not just recklessly negligent in promoting their product, but that they actually knew the health concerns and chose to promote cigarettes with misinformation anyways. By 1994, 46 different U.S. States as well as the U.S. federal government had sued tobacco companies for violating consumer protection and antitrust laws, alleging they had engaged in deceptive practices, withheld information, and targeted youth. This landmark litigation resulted in the historic 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, in which tobacco companies agreed to pay billions of dollars to participating states and adhere to various marketing restrictions such as ceasing all ad campaigns that market cigarettes towards children.

While significant progress has been made in the legal battle against the tobacco industry, new challenges have emerged. The advent of e-cigarettes and vaping products has raised concerns about the industry's influence on younger generations and potential health risks associated with these alternatives. Efforts to regulate and hold the industry accountable for marketing to minors and promoting misleading health claims are ongoing, but the tobacco industry going from campaigns such as their "More doctors smoke Camels" ads to having to display a realistic image depicting the negative health consequences of smoking on each cigarette package, just shows that, while the battle may be long, it may also be won.

Read more about the health consequences of cigarettes and the legal battles against them here

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