/ December 16, 2008

Tobacco Company’s Defense Goes Up In Smoke

In a close 5-4 split, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that smokers may use state consumer protection laws to sue cigarette makers for the way they promote “light” and “low tar” brands. 


David Frederick, who represented the Maine residents at the high court, argued that the company knew for decades that smokers of light cigarettes compensate for the lower levels of tar and nicotine by taking longer puffs and compensating in other ways. “Had the court gone the other way, it would have been open season for the tobacco companies to continue to perpetrate fraud on the tobacco-consuming public,” stated Frederick.

Altria Group Inc. argued on behalf of its Philip Morris USA subsidiary that the lawsuits are barred by the federal cigarette labeling law, which forbids states from regulating any aspect of cigarette advertising that involves smoking and health.

However, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority opinion that the labeling law does not shield the companies from state laws against deceptive practices. Stevens was joined in the majority by Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter, and Justice Anthony Kennedy. Thomas, writing for the dissenters, said the lawsuit should be thrown out because it relies on claims about smokers’ health.

The decision forces tobacco companies to defend dozens of suits filed by smokers in Maine, where the case originated, and across the country.The class-action claim represents all smokers of Marlboro Lights or Cambridge Lights cigarettes, both made by Philip Morris.

Altria senior vice president and associate general counsel Murray Garnick said the company still could prevail in these fraud lawsuits. “We continue to view these cases as manageable, and the company will assert many of the strong defenses used successfully in the past to defend against this very type of case,” Garnick said.

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