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Suit Accuses Philip Morris of Deception

Jan 27, 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.

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

Unlike many other high-profile cigarette-related lawsuits, the members of the class aren't claiming that smoking made them sick; their argument is that they were tricked by the company.

Last week, the case became the first consumer fraud class-action lawsuit involving light cigarettes to go to trial, both sides in the case said.

The plaintiffs' lawyers argue that Philip Morris should pay billions of dollars because it tried to persuade customers that cigarettes branded "light" contain lower doses of tar and nicotine.

An Oregon jury in March awarded $150 million to survivors of a woman who died of lung cancer in a similar, individual case that claimed Philip Morris falsely represented low-tar cigarettes as healthier.

In his opening statement Tuesday, Illinois 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.

But a lawyer for the New York-based food and tobacco giant said the cigarette-maker never said smoking "light" cigarettes is less harmful than smoking regular ones.

Philip Morris attorney George Lombardi said in his opening argument Wednesday that smokers don't generally believe the term "light" means less harmful. He said people associate it with the flavor of the tobacco.

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

But in November 2001, the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute issued a report saying "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 healthier.

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

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. The conservative Manhattan Institute dubbed Madison County a "plaintiff's paradise" in a study about class-action cases.

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