WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Justice Department disclosed Wednesday it wants to require the tobacco industry to admit publicly that smoking causes a multitude of medical problems, killing 1,200 Americans every day.
The government proposed that a federal judge order the companies to say in advertisements that they lied to the public about the safety and dangers of smoking. "We falsely marketed low tar and light cigarettes as less harmful than regular cigarettes to keep people smoking and sustain our profits," one of the government's proposed statements begins.
Philip Morris USA, maker of Marlboro, the nation's top-selling cigarette brand, and its parent company, Altria Group Inc., said the proposed statements go beyond factual and scientific information.
The company said it agrees with the overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease and other serious diseases in smokers and is addictive.
But the Justice Department proposal would compel the companies to admit wrongdoing under threat of contempt of court by a judge.
"Such a proposal is unprecedented in our legal system and would violate basic constitutional and statutory standards," said Murray Garnick, Altria Client Services senior vice president and associate general counsel.
Philip Morris said the proposal would violate a court of appeals decision which held that any corrective statements must be purely factual and uncontroversial.
"The government's proposal is neither," Garnick said. "We will work with the Department of Justice and, if necessary, challenge the proposal at the appropriate time."
The department released its hard-hitting proposed statements after winning U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler's approval to place them in the public record. She has said she wants the industry to pay for "corrective statements" in various types of ads, both broadcast and print, but she has not made a final decision on what the statements will say, where they must be placed or for how long.
The judge ruled in 2006 that the tobacco industry had concealed the dangers of smoking for decades. If the judge approves, the proposed statements by the cigarette-makers would become the remedy to ensure the companies don't repeat the violation. The case was brought by the government against the industry in 1999.
The industry, which is expected to contest the wording of the proposed admissions, sought 90 days to respond to the government's corrective statements, but the judge denied that request. The tobacco companies have until March 3 to respond.
There was no immediate reaction from the companies Wednesday evening. Kessler was to meet with all parties on Thursday.
The government proposed 14 statements to cover the addictiveness of nicotine, the lack of health benefit from "low tar," "ultra-light" and "mild" cigarettes and negative health effects of second-hand smoke.
Each proposed statement is labeled "Paid for" by the name of the cigarette manufacturer "under order of a federal district court."
One of the statements begins: "For decades, we denied that we controlled the level of nicotine delivered in cigarettes. Here's the truth." It goes on to say: "We control nicotine delivery to create and sustain smokers' addiction, because that's how we keep customers coming back."
Other proposed statements:
"A federal court is requiring tobacco companies to tell the truth about cigarette smoking. Here's the truth: ... Smoking kills 1,200 Americans. Every day."
"We told Congress under oath that we believed nicotine is not addictive. We told you that smoking is not an addiction and all it takes to quit is willpower. Here's the truth: Smoking is very addictive. And it's not easy to quit."
"Just because lights and low tar cigarettes feel smoother, that doesn't mean they are any better for you. Light cigarettes can deliver the same amounts of tar and nicotine as regular cigarettes."
"The surgeon general has concluded" that "children exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome, acute respiratory infections, ear problems and more severe asthma."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)