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Philip Morris Accused of Leading Customers To Believe "Light" Brands Were Healthier

Jan 22, 2003 | AP Sharon Price switched from smoking regular cigarettes to brands labeled "light" when she was pregnant in the 1970s.

"I knew the better choice was to quit, but I thought I was reducing my risk," the pack-a-day smoker said.

Price, 52, is among the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Philip Morris Cos. that accuses the maker of Marlboro Lights and Cambridge Lights cigarettes of leading customers to believe the "light" brands are less harmful than regular cigarettes.

Both sides in the trial that began Tuesday said the lawsuit is the first in the nation that accuses a tobacco company of consumer fraud.

Plaintiffs' lawyers argue that Philip Morris should pay billions of dollars to Illinois smokers, saying the company tried to persuade customers that cigarettes branded "light" contain lower doses of tar and nicotine.

Philip Morris denies the allegations and its lawyers were scheduled to deliver their opening statement Wednesday.

Philip Morris spokesman Michael York said the company will set out to prove that it never claimed brands labeled "light" were any better for smokers than regular brands.

The New York-based food and tobacco giant faces lawsuits that make similar claims in other states, but none has yet come to trial, said York.

The lawsuit was filed in Madison County Circuit Court, which has drawn nationwide attention and criticism for the number of class-action cases filed there 60 in 2001 and 39 the year before that.

In his opening statement Tuesday, plaintiffs' lawyer Stephen Tillery said the corporation has known for years that "light" or "low-tar" cigarettes emit the same amount of toxins as regular brands, and sometimes more, yet helped perpetuate the myth that the brands are less harmful.

"What on earth would possess a company to do such a thing?" the East St. Louis-based lawyer asked Judge Nicholas Byron, who is hearing the case without a jury. "The almighty dollar," Tillery contended.

The machine used by the Federal Trade Commission since the 1960s to measure cigarette toxins indeed shows "light" brands deliver lower levels of the harmful chemicals, said John Mulderig, Philip Morris' associate general counsel.

But Mulderig said the company included an insert inside its Marlboro cigarettes for several months starting in November 2002 explaining that "light" cigarettes should not be considered any safer than regular brands. "There is no such thing as a safe cigarette," was the insert's opening sentence.

In November 2001, the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute issued a report saying that "light" and similarly labeled cigarettes are no better for smokers than regular brands. The report also said smokers tend to switch to a "light" brand out of the mistaken impression such cigarettes are better for their health.

Illinois smokers spend more than $7 billion a year on Marlboro Lights, and more than $350,000 a year on Cambridge Lights, Tillery said.

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