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'Light' Cigarette Suit Begins

Smokers Fight Philip Morris

Jan 22, 2003 | Belleville News-Democrat Sharon Price switched to light cigarettes in 1977, when she was pregnant for the first time.

"I thought if I went to a light, then I could quit," said Price, 52, a dispatcher and records clerk for the East Alton Police.

Two more pregnancies and 26 years later, Price smokes about 30 cigarettes a day.

She's also part of a $7.4 billion lawsuit against the maker of Marlboro and Cambridge lights.

The trial started Tuesday at the Madison County Courthouse in Edwardsville.

In the class-action lawsuit, Price represents all the smokers in Illinois who wrongly believed they were getting less tar and nicotine from the two light brands sold by the Philip Morris company.

On the first day of trial Tuesday, attorney Stephen Tillery called the company's sale of Marlboro and Cambridge lights "the light lie" and "the perfect crime."

The only difference in the light cigarettes and regular smokes is more ventilation in the filters, he said.

"As long as the thing you promised doesn't exist, there's no fraud. What on earth would induce a company to do such a thing? Money, money, money," Tillery said during his three-hour opening statement to Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron.

Both sides agreed to a nonjury trial, because the case is expected to last at least three weeks.

"It's a harder to keep people interested in a case," said Jerry Brown, an attorney for the smokers.

On its first day, the trial took on the look of the giant asbestos-injury lawsuits that once jammed the same courthouse.

Smokers' lawyers outnumbered tobacco lawyers 10 to 3. Each side had a media-relations professional in the courtroom.

The smokers' media spokesman distributed handout sheets to reporters for four newspapers.

Tillery's three-hour opening before the judge was accompanied by constantly changing information lists, charts and video statements.

At one point, a defense attorney made an unsuccessful objection to Tillery's speech and multimedia presentation.

"Ninety-percent of what you just saw has nothing to do with Marlboro lights," Philip Morris attorney Jeff Wagner said. "Where is the issue of the plaintiffs' health?"

Price, who used to smoke Cambridge lights, said she suffers no smoking-related illness.

The defense will present its opening statement when the trial resumes at 8 a.m. today.

"I hope we're not going to be as long," said John Mulderig, associate general counsel for Philip Morris at its headquarters in Richmond, Va.

Mulderig said the defense will present a history of light cigarettes and show that the federal government encouraged their development.

Mulderig said information about the content of lights has been well-publicized by government researchers and others.

The lawsuit claims the company promoted the light cigarettes as safer and more healthful while knowing they carried some worse dangers than regular cigarettes.

The lawsuit against Philip Morris is one of three class-action suits by Tillery's law firm against makers of light cigarettes. Two other trials will come later.

About a dozen similar lawsuits are pending in other states.

If the smokers win, the monetary awards will be divided among lawyers and all the smokers in Illinois who qualify.

The judge will decide whether to award punitive damages and whether people like Price, whose names are on the lawsuits, get more than the other smokers.

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