Class-action lawsuits seeking billions of dollars from tobacco companies have been filed in 11 states, including Florida, contending that cigarette makers use terms such as “light” to mislead smokers into thinking those brands are safer.
The same argument helped survivors of a 53-year-old Oregon woman who died from lung cancer win a jury award of $150 million from Philip Morris Cos. Inc. last week.
The class-action lawsuits name the nation’s three largest tobacco companies Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Brown & Williamson Corp. and allege violations of consumer protection laws.
“It’s a scam because they get people to believe that they reduce health risks when that is a false statement,” said Stephen Sheller, a Philadelphia attorney who began preparing the cases four years ago.
Tobacco companies say the lawsuits have no merit. R.J. Reynolds spokesman Seth Moskowitz said cigarette manufacturers use terms such as “full-flavor,” “lights” and “ultra lights” to differentiate strength of taste and amount of tar and nicotine.
“These terms do not, and are not meant to, imply that any cigarette brand style or any category of cigarettes is safer than any other,” he said.
The Oregon jury said Philip Morris falsely represented low-tar cigarettes as more healthful. It was the first such verdict in the nation.
The Federal Trade Commission, which has some regulatory authority over marketing and advertising of cigarettes, does not define “light.” The tobacco industry generally uses that term to describe cigarettes with less than 15 milligrams of tar, a carcinogen produced when tobacco is burned. Tar helps deliver nicotine to smokers.
The effort to market low-tar cigarettes gained momentum in the 1960s, after some health advocates said they could reduce health risks, including cancer. Former U.S. Surgeon General Julius Richmond recommended in 1981 that smokers switch to lights if they couldn’t quit. That position has since been dropped, but sales of light cigarettes have boomed. They now account for the majority of the U.S. cigarette market. While more people were turning to light cigarettes, the American Cancer Society was conducting studies the first in the 1960s and the second in the 1980s that found lung cancer death rates among smokers rose even though tar levels had dropped. A National Cancer Institute study last fall offered an explanation. It found that cigarettes that yielded low tar and nicotine when tested on government-approved machines gave off higher levels when smoked by people. That’s because people who smoke lights tend to inhale more deeply and take more puffs to get the nicotine they need. The study, cited as evidence in the class-action lawsuits, said cigarette manufacturers knew about this phenomenon and designed their products to register low tar readings in machine tests.
One way they did this was ventilation holes in the filter.
The holes help lower tar levels in machine tests but offer little or no benefit to real smokers, whose fingers and lips often cover them. In addition to Florida, class-action lawsuits have been filed in these states against tobacco companies that sell “light” cigarettes: California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and West Virginia.
“These terms do not, and are not meant to, imply that any cigarette brand style or any category of cigarettes is safer than any other.”