Tobacco Industry Suits Open In La., Ill.Jan 21, 2003 | AP A lawsuit seeking to make Big Tobacco pay for smoking-cessation programs in Louisiana opened Tuesday with plaintiffs' accusations that cigarette makers conspired for decades to get smokers hooked.
Tobacco companies "made a choice to get together and conspire. They made a choice to addict. They made a choice to target youth," said Russ Herman, the plaintiffs' lead attorney.
The lawsuit on behalf of 1.5 million Louisiana smokers seeks no individual payments. Instead, it wants the industry to pay for cessation programs and the medical monitoring for still-healthy smokers.
Also Tuesday, a trial began in earnest in Illinois where lawyers for 1 million smokers have accused Philip Morris of consumer fraud for marketing "light" cigarettes as being less harmful.
The Louisiana plaintiffs say cigarette-makers are liable because they conspired to manipulate the nicotine levels in their products to keep smokers hooked, a contention long denied by the industry.
Herman said he would show that the heads of major tobacco companies had a "gentleman's agreement" to hide the dangers of smoking from the public and refused to remove nicotine from cigarettes because they feared financial collapse.
The industry also considered youths "a crop to be harvested" and targeted them with advertising campaigns, Herman said.
The defense was to make its opening statement later Tuesday. Tobacco companies contend smoking is a personal choice and that medical programs proposed to help smokers have not been proven to work.
There has been no estimate of what a loss would cost the industry. However, a smaller class-action suit in West Virginia that sought only medical monitoring carried a potential price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars. The tobacco industry won that suit.
The first phase of the trial is expected to range from six months to a year. If the industry is found liable, other phases will be held to determine such issues as the responsibility of individual smokers and to set damage payments.