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Light Cigarette Lawsuits in the United States: 2007

Many smokers and potential smokers believe that light cigarette brands* are less hazardous to their health than standard brands.1 As a result, millions of smokers have switched to light cigarettes instead of attempting to quit.2 For the same reason, light cigarettes are popular among new smokers, particularly youth.3 The truth, however, is that light cigarettes are not safer than other brands and are just as addictive.4

Have these smokers been misled? In 2001, the National Cancer Institute published an analysis of internal industry documents that appeared to show that the cigarette industry knew the truth about light cigarettes, but kept it secret.5 Further evidence of wrongdoing was revealed by the United States Department of Justice’s lawsuit against the leading cigarette manufacturers.6 Federal District Court Judge Gladys Kessler, who presided over the case, made the follow key findings in August of 2006:

For several decades, Defendants have marketed and promoted their low tar brands as being less harmful than conventional cigarettes. That claim is false. . . . By making these false claims, Defendants have given smokers an acceptable alternative to quitting smoking, as well as an excuse for not quitting.7
. . .
Defendants’ conduct relating to low tar cigarettes was intended to further their overarching economic goal: to keep smokers smoking; to stop smokers from quitting; to encourage people, especially young people, to start smoking; and to maintain or increase corporate profits.8

Believing they were misled, light cigarette smokers have begun to bring lawsuits against cigarette manufacturers. The manufacturers deny any wrongdoing and are vigorously defending themselves in court.

This law synopsis examines light cigarette litigation. Section I provides a brief history of light cigarettes and their marketing. Section II provides an introduction to the ways tobacco litigation advances public health goals. Sections III and IV focus respectively on light cigarette class actions and individual light cigarette lawsuits. Section V discusses some key federalism issues at play in the litigation. Section VI touches on some of Judge Kessler’s findings of fact about the cigarette industry’s marketing of light cigarettes.

Key Points:

  • Cigarettes branded as “light,” “ultra light,” “low tar,” and the like are not designed to deliver less tar or nicotine to the smoker or otherwise reduce harmful exposure to the many toxic chemical compounds in cigarette smoke.
  • Internal industry documents show that cigarette manufacturers have been aware for many years that light cigarettes expose smokers to just as much tar and nicotine as other brands, but still misled smokers and potential smokers into believing otherwise.
  • Class action lawsuits alleging that cigarette manufacturers fraudulently misled consumers into believing light cigarettes are less harmful than other brands have been filed in over two dozen states, but only a few of the class actions have been allowed to proceed to trial.
  • The only light cigarette class action lawsuit to reach trial resulted in a multibillion dollar judgment against Philip Morris, but was overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court.
  • In 2006, a federal judge ruled that leading cigarette manufacturers violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ─ in part because of their light cigarette marketing.

Read the entire document on Light Cigarette Lawsuits in the United States here.

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