Smokers Can Sue over ‘Light Cigarettes’: US Supreme Court

WASHINGTON ~ In a ruling that could pave the way towards huge lawsuits against tobacco companies, the top US court said this week that smokers can sue over the allegedly deceptive marketing of “light” cigarettes.

The case involves three residents from northeast Maine who puffed on Marlboro Lights, made by Altria, and Cambridge Lights for 15 years.

They argued they had a right under state law to sue the companies for allegedly deceiving smokers into believing that light and low tar cigarettes were healthier.

Altria had countered the lawsuit was pre-empted by federal law and interfered with the regulatory authority of the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The company argued the FTC had failed to act despite being aware that light cigarettes were no less a health hazard that regular cigarettes.

But Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, upheld an earlier ruling from the First Circuit Court, which had said the main legal issue was not about health hazards, but the duty under Maine law not to deceive consumers who had bought the light cigarettes.

Lawyer for the smokers, Gerard Mantese, welcomed the ruling, saying the suit would now go ahead in the Maine district court.

“We are pleased that the United States Supreme Court agreed that the tobacco companies are not immune from suit and can be held accountable, like everyone else, for consumer fraud,” he said in a statement.

The Supreme Court also rejected another argument by Altria that there was no basis for a lawsuit because the FTC had allegedly encouraged consumers to rely on test results of lower tar and nicotine in choosing a brand.

The court said the FTC never obliged the tobacco industry to disclose tar and nicotine levels from the test and did not approve of the description of those results as “light” or “low tar and nicotine” in advertising.

The high court’s ruling does not guarantee that the three Maine residents will prevail in their lawsuit, but it does allow the case to proceed in the federal courts.

If the lawsuit succeeds, Altria and other tobacco manufacturers could find themselves being forced to pay out staggering legal settlements to ex-smokers.

Light cigarettes offer lower levels of tar and nicotine, but health experts say they do not eliminate the dangers posed by smoking.

At the heart of the case is the possibility that cigarette manufacturers used every trick in the marketing book to pitch their products.

Altria – whose stable of brands also includes Benson and Hedges – had sought to contend that a section of a federal law dealing with cigarette labeling and advertising trumped anti-tobacco legislation implemented at the state level.

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