Light Cigarette Suits OKD By Supreme CourtDec 16, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
"Light" cigarette lawsuits can go forward, thanks to a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, the court said a federal labeling law doesn’t shield cigarette makers from fraud lawsuits over the marketing of cigarettes they describe as “light” or “low tar." According to Bloomberg.com the high court also said federal oversight of cigarette testing didn’t preclude those lawsuits.
Millions of Americans have smoked "low-tar," "mild," or "light" cigarettes, believing those cigarettes to be less harmful than other cigarettes. Many of these cigarettes were falsely marketed as "safe" or "harmless".
Various studies have proven that "light" cigarettes are just as dangerous as other varieties. Last year, a Philip Morris memo from 1975 was made public that proved cigarette makers were aware that smokers of light cigarettes took longer puffs and inhaled larger amounts of tar than those who smoked other version.
The controversy over "light" cigarettes has spawned dozens of lawsuits claiming billions of dollars in damages. The Supreme Court case was brought by three Main smokers seeking to sue Philip Morris, and its parent Altria, for economic damages that resulted from fraudulent claims about the safety of light cigarettes. The plaintiffs wanted to sue the companies under Main's Unfair Trade Practices Act.
According to the LA Times, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) told the court that the tobacco industry had known for at least 30 years that light cigarettes were not safer. The FTC also said the use of labels such as "light," "ultra light" or "low tar" did little but fool smokers into thinking they faced less of a health risk, the LA times said.
Atrias and Philip Morris had claimed that the federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, which required tobacco companies to place rotating warnings on their packaging and advertising, pre-empted such lawsuits. According to The New York Times, the law states that "no requirement or prohibition based on smoking and health shall be imposed under state law with respect to the advertising or promotion” of cigarettes so long as the law’s labeling requirements were followed. In 1992, the court ruled that the law barred claims from smokers who said they were not warned about the health risks.
But in its decision yesterday, the court's majority held that cigarette makers could be sued for deceptive advertising under state consumer-protection laws. According to the LA Times, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that those who sold products had a "duty not to deceive" the public through their advertising or marketing.
The decision allows class-action lawsuits to proceed in several states and opens the door to suits in other states, the LA Times said. According to Bloomberg.com, fraud suits over "light" cigarettes represent probably the most significant legal threat facing the tobacco industry.