A suit accusing tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris of lying to consumers about the dangers of smoking “light” cigarettes opened on Tuesday, marking the first time in Madison County that a class-action suit has gone to trial.
Until now, every class-action suit in Madison County that has resulted in a payout to class members has been settled before a trial could begin.
In addition, the suit is the first in the nation to argue that a tobacco company’s marketing of “light” cigarettes constituted consumer fraud, a claim that allows lawyers to pursue the case as a class action rather than as a personal-injury suit.
The suit represents about 1 million Illinois residents and seeks more than $7 billion in compensatory damages, plus punitive damages.
Madison County Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron is conducting the bench trial, which is expected to last six to seven weeks.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Stephen M. Tillery, of Carr Korein Tillery in Belleville, said in opening statements Tuesday that witnesses and evidence would prove that Philip Morris had lied to consumers by implying that Marlboro Lights and Cambridge Lights were less harmful than their “regular” counterparts.
Tillery said the tobacco company even foisted the falsehood on the public health community, giving rise to a generation of doctors who encouraged their patients to switch to light cigarettes if they could not or would not quit smoking.
In reality, Tillery said, consumers who smoked light cigarettes were getting even higher doses of toxins than those who smoked regular cigarettes.
“Cigarette for cigarette, light cigarettes are worse for you,” Tillery said.
Attorneys for Philip Morris are set to lay out the company’s defense this morning in opening statements. The company is represented by Winston and Strawn of Chicago and Burroughs Hepler Broom of Edwardsville.
John Mulderig, associate general counsel for Philip Morris, previewed that defense outside the courtroom Tuesday afternoon, saying that the suit should not have been certified as a class action because it would be impossible to prove all class members had purchased the cigarettes with the belief that they were less harmful.
Mulderig also said that the federal government and the public health community – not tobacco companies – had promoted the idea that light cigarettes were less harmful than regular cigarettes.
“The tobacco companies never said that lower-tar cigarettes were safer – we never made that representation,” Mulderig said. The plaintiffs’ theory “is that it’s all implied, that ‘light’ means ‘safer.’ ”
A study published in November 2001 by the National Cancer Institute reported no evidence that low-tar cigarettes had resulted in fewer cases of smoking-related diseases.
Similar suits against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. are pending in circuit court in Madison County.