Supreme Court permits Maine Residents to Sue Tobacco Company

Continuing its streak,  of tobacco-related cases this term, the Supreme Court ruled in Altria v. Good that cigarette manufacturers could be sued for their alleged deception concerning the health risks of “light” or “low tar” cigarettes. 

In the past, the Supreme Court has not permitted lawsuits from smokers to go forward on the ground that smokers were not adequately warned about the dangers of smoking. Federal laws passed in 1965, the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, and 1969, the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, required warning labels on cigarette boxes.  Accordingly, in 1992 in Cipollone v. Liggett Group, the Court ruled that these laws barred claims from smokers who said they were not warned about the health risks.

This 5-4 ruling suggests that the Court has changed course by permitting individuals to bring suits against cigarette manufacturers for deceptive advertising under state law. 

Many American smokers buy “light” or “low tar” cigarettes for their perceived health benefits relative to regular cigarettes.  When smoked by test machines, the cigarettes produce less smoke, tar, and nicotine.  When smoked by actual smokers, however, the cigarettes yield about the same amount of smoke, tar and nicotine as regular brands. Allegedly, the tobacco industry has known these results for at least 30 years.

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said those who sold products had a “duty not to deceive” the public through their advertising or marketing. Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer joined in the opinion, while Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented.
Ten years ago, the tobacco industry agreed to a $206-billion Master Settlement Agreement with 46 states to end lawsuits over the health care costs of smoking. That agreement, however, did not block new private lawsuits.  Class-action lawsuits disputing the labeling of cigarettes as “light” or “low-tar” are purportedly set to go forward in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Missouri.

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