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Tobacco company faces trial in SD over ‘light’ cigarettes

Lawyer says Altria should pay $544M in restitution

Altria Group Inc.’s Philip Morris U.S.A. unit falsely marketed its “light” cigarettes as a healthier choice than regular cigarettes and should pay $543.6 million in restitution to California smokers, a lawyer said at the start of a trial.

Mark Robinson, who represents smokers who brought the lawsuit as a class action, or group case, said in state court in San Diego on April 22 that he will present dozens of internal Philip Morris documents that prove that its top executives were aware that Marlboro Lights were as addictive and dangerous to smokers as Marlboro Reds, and continued to market the Lights as a healthy alternative.

“Their own documents tell the truth,” Robinson said in his opening statement at the nonjury trial. He said financial experts will testify in support of his request for damages.

The case, filed in 1997, accused Philip Morris and other tobacco companies of making misleading statements about the health risks and addictiveness of smoking, and sought restitution for money that smokers spent on cigarettes.

Philip Morris U.S.A., based in Richmond, Va., is the only remaining defendant in the case and the only claim still at issue is that it made false statements concerning light cigarettes. California Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Prager is presiding over the trial.

False impression

The plaintiffs allege Philip Morris deceptively marketed and labeled cigarettes as “light” and “low tar” because it created the false impression that these cigarettes were less dangerous than full-flavor ones, according to an April 19 court filing by Philip Morris.

“People’s perceptions were that Lights were healthy as a result of a brilliant marketing campaign,” Robinson said today.

Robinson presented video depositions and written reports from top-level Philip Morris executives that he said showed that they were aware that even if smokers switched to cigarettes marketed as low-tar or low-nicotine, scientific research showed that these smokers would compensate to meet their body’s “daily nicotine quota” by either taking deeper puffs of the light cigarettes or smoking more of them.

“Philip Morris had knowledge that their light cigarettes were not only not healthy but that they were just as addictive and dangerous as regular cigarettes,” Robinson said.

Denies misleading

Philip Morris denies that labeling cigarettes as “light” was misleading and contends it never claimed that they were more healthy than full-flavor cigarettes, according to court filings. The company also argues that there’s no evidence all smokers for which the plaintiffs seek restitution switched to light cigarettes because they thought they were healthier.

The case involves California smokers of Philip Morris “light” cigarettes from June 10, 1993, through April 23, 2001.

The San Diego court ruled in 2004 that the smokers’ case couldn’t proceed as a class action, or group case, because some of the plaintiffs didn’t meet a requirement that they personally suffered injury or financial loss.

The California Supreme Court said in 2009 that even if the plaintiffs in the case didn’t meet the requirement, the case shouldn’t be decertified as a class action. Instead, the plaintiffs should be allowed to amend the lawsuit to redefine the group that is suing or find new class representatives.

The case is In re Tobacco Cases II, JCCP 4042, California Superior Court, County of San Diego.

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