Despite John Ashcroft's skepticism, the Justice Department is pressing ahead with its lawsuit against the tobacco industry. The New York Times reports that the government is seeking the disgorgement of $289 billion in ill-gotten gains, presumably under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The number, which exceeds the industry's net worth, "is based partly on proceeds the government says the industry made from selling cigarettes to an estimated 30 million people who started smoking regularly before the age of 18 beginning in 1954, when the industry allegedly began its illegal collusion."
The lawsuit rests on a number of incredible claims, including the notion that the tobacco companies somehow managed to conceal smoking risks that have been a matter of common knowledge for decades. It also takes a certain amount of chutzpah for a government that has long profited from cigarette sales through taxes to suddenly assert that such money is tainted.
But the funniest part of the lawsuit may be the Justice Department's decision to condemn the tobacco companies both for selling low-tar cigarettes and for "manipulating" nicotine. The problem with low-tar cigarettes is that they also have low nicotine yields. Hence people tend to smoke them harder–inhaling more deeply, holding the smoke longer, consuming more of each cigarette, even subconsciously covering ventilation holes–to get the amount of nicotine they're used to. The obvious solution is low-tar cigarettes that are high in nicotine–which requires just the sort of "manipulation" the government considers sinister.