By David Ingram
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. tobacco companies told a federal judge on Monday they should not be required to tell the public they manipulated nicotine levels to make cigarettes more addictive, or that they repeatedly lied about the health effects of light cigarettes.
The companies - including Altria Group Inc and Reynolds American Inc - have been fighting with the U.S. Justice Department for six years about the wording of what are known as "corrective statements."
The statements are part of the penalty the companies must pay after U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler, in a historic 2006 decision, found that the tobacco industry engaged in a multi-decade fraud to deceive the public.
Labels with the statements are set to run eventually in newspapers, on cigarette packaging and elsewhere.
The labels are separate from those that have run on U.S. cigarette packaging for decades, and from new graphic labels proposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Although Kessler's decision concluded that the companies manipulated nicotine and lied about health effects - and an appeals court upheld her decision - the companies maintain they did nothing wrong.
To force the companies to advertise those conclusions would mean spreading a message they do not believe, in violation of their speech rights, Noel Francisco, a lawyer for several companies, said at a hearing on Monday.
"Simply because the court found it, doesn't mean it can force us to say it," Francisco told Kessler. The statements need to be purely factual and non-controversial, he said.
A Justice Department lawyer said the proposed statements are factual, based on Kessler's 2006 decision, and that the public needs to be aware of the extent of the companies' lying.
"The tobacco companies would love these statements to be generic health warnings. They would love these statements to be about their products and not about them," said the Justice Department's Daniel Crane-Hirsch.
Kessler said she would rule on the proposed wording of the "corrective statements" soon.
The dispute is the latest round in a legal fight between the government and major cigarette-makers dating to the Clinton administration.
In 1999 Justice Department lawyers accused the companies of running a fraud against Americans by denying or downplaying the effects of their products.
One 1954 newspaper ad, for example, dismissed experiments suggesting a link between cancer and smoking. "We accept an interest in people's health as a basic responsibility, paramount to every other consideration in our business," the ad said.
Kessler ruled that the companies violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a 1970 law designed for use against organized crime.
She rejected a Justice Department proposal that the companies pay billions for anti-smoking campaigns, but she did bar them from using terms such as "low tar" or "light" in their cigarette marketing, and she required them to make corrective statements to the public.
(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)