The nation's two biggest tobacco companies, Philip Morris USA Inc. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., have agreed to pay $6.25 million to support the country's largest online collection of internal tobacco industry documents, the Justice Department announced Wednesday.
The settlement resolves a dispute over an online document database that a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C., mandated in a 2006 ruling in which she found the companies masked the dangers of smoking.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler said the companies were trying to deceive people about the health effects of smoking and nicotine addiction and about marketing to youth and changes to cigarette designs to increase addiction.
Over the next four years, the companies will fund and enhance access to the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, an online database of more than 13 million internal tobacco company documents run by the University of California, San Francisco. The 11-year-old database mostly contains documents revealed during lawsuits against the companies. Hard copies are stored in an archive known as the Minnesota Depository.
Representatives for Richmond, Va.-based Altria Group Inc., parent of Philip Morris USA, and for Reynolds American Inc., the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based owner of R.J. Reynolds, declined to comment on the settlement Wednesday.
The settlement still must be approved by the court.
"This agreement helps make sure that these documents will be accessible to researchers, journalists, students, lawyers, the government and the public at large _ anyone who is interested in learning more about the defendants' efforts to mislead consumers about the effects of smoking," Tony West, assistant attorney general for the civil division of the Department of Justice, said in a statement.
In addition to the document database, Kessler has said she wants the industry to pay for various types of ads, both broadcast and print, but she has not said what the statements should say, where they must be placed or for how long.
The government's proposed corrective ads would cover the addictiveness of nicotine, the lack of health benefits from "low tar," "ultra-light" and "mild" cigarettes and the dangers of secondhand smoke. The companies have argued that the statements are inflammatory, inaccurate and "designed solely to shame and humiliate" the companies.
The court is considering delaying that decision while other courts decide newer cases challenging new tobacco marketing restrictions and graphic cigarette warning labels the government has proposed.
Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum.