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ABC TV Network Apologizes to Tobacco Companies For "Spike" Comment


October 1995

ABC has apologized to two tobacco companies, settling libel suits about a comment that the companies "spike" their products with nicotine (John Schwartz, "ABC Issues Apology for Tobacco Report," Washington Post, August 22, 1995, p. 1; Howard Kurtz, "Long-Term Effect of ABC Settlement Concerns Critics," Washington Post, August 23, 1995, p. A4; John Schwartz, "Despite ABC Apology, FDA to Keep Up Campaign Against Tobacco," Washington Post, August 27, 1995, p. A15).

As was reported in the May issue of NewsBriefs, the suit had centered around the use of the word "spike" in a "Day One" segment on February 28, 1994 ("Tobacco Industry Giant Takes on ABC," NewsBriefs, May 1995). The programs used the word to describe tobacco manufacturers' practice of removing nicotine from tobacco and then replacing it in the final stages of processing.

Philip Morris was seeking $10 billion in the suit, which would have been the largest libel award in history. The company was spending more than $1 million every month for more than 20 lawyers to work on the case. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company filed their own suit later for an undisclosed amount. ABC might have gone bankrupt if it had been forced to pay the award. The broadcasting company made only $6.4 billion in 1994.

The apology was read by ABC anchor Diane Sawyer during a "Day One" broadcast and also during a Monday Night Football broadcast. "We now agree that we should not have reported that Philip Morris and Reynolds add significant amounts of nicotine from outside sources," the statement said. ABC also said it agrees to pay all of Philip Morris' costs in connection with the suit.

Soon after, Philip Morris published full-page ads in major newspapers with the banner "Apology Accepted" and a copy of the statement from ABC. The text of the ad said that Philip Morris is ready to accept an apology from anti-smoking advocates as well. "Here's all we ask:" the ad stated, "When charges are leveled against us, don't take them at face value. Instead, consider the information we provide, and then -- just as importantly -- subject the charges themselves to the scrutiny and skepticism they deserve. Fairness and sincere interest in the truth demand no less" (see, for example, Washington Post, August 27, 1995, p. C5).

The settlement came at a pivotal time for the tobacco industry, as the Food and Drug Administration proposed to regulate the sale of tobacco products to minors. Charles R. Wall, senior vice president and deputy general counsel of Philip Morris, said that the regulation proposals stemmed from the ABC story. "I think [the apology] will have an effect," he said. In a statement released by the FDA, the agency indicated that the settlement will have no effect on tobacco regulation proposals.

Anti-smoking activist Clifford Douglas said he was disappointed with the apology. "ABC should be ashamed of itself," he said. "ABC's corporate brass, by losing its nerve, has failed its news staff and its audience."