WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court has rejected appeals by the Obama administration and the nation's largest tobacco companies to get involved in a legal fight about the dangers of cigarette smoking that has stretched more than 10 years.
The court's action, issued without comment Monday, leaves in place court rulings that the tobacco industry illegally concealed the dangers of smoking for decades. But it also prevents the administration from trying to extract billions of dollars from the industry either in past profits or to fund a national campaign to curb smoking.
In asking the court to hear its appeal, the administration said the industry's half-century of deception "has cost the lives and damaged the health of untold millions of Americans."
The appeal was signed by Elena Kagan, the solicitor general, a couple of months before President Barack Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court.
Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest tobacco maker, its parent company Altria Group Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., British American Tobacco Investments Ltd. and Lorillard Tobacco Co. filed separate but related appeals that took issue with a federal judge's 1,600-page opinion and an appeals court ruling that found the industry engaged in racketeering and fraud over several decades.
In 2006, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that the companies engaged in a scheme to defraud the public by falsely denying the adverse health effects of smoking, concealing evidence that nicotine is addictive and lying about their manipulation of nicotine in cigarettes to create addiction. A federal appeals court in Washington upheld the findings.
At the same time, however, the courts have said the government is not entitled to collect $280 billion in past profits or $14 billion for a national campaign to curb smoking. The high court previously denied the government's appeal on that issue.
The companies argue that the government improperly used the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO law, against them. The racketeering law often is employed against the Mafia and other criminal organizations.
The companies also say the courts' decision to brand their statements about smoking as fraudulent unfairly denied them their First Amendment rights to engage in the public-health debate about smoking.
The administration said the money it seeks from the industry is commensurate with the harm it has caused.
The public health groups in the case are: American Cancer Society; American Heart Association; American Lung Association; Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights; National African American Tobacco Prevention Network and Tobacco-Free Kids Action Fund.
The groups are most interested in forcing the tobacco companies to pay for a wide-ranging education campaign to discourage people from taking up smoking and helping others quit.