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Jim McKnight/AP

Supreme Court Rules That “Light” Cigarette Lawsuit Is Not Preempted by Federal Law

December 16, 2008 03:44 PM
by Isabel Cowles
The Supreme Court ruled that a group of smokers may proceed with litigation against Phillip Morris alleging false advertising in marketing “light” cigarettes.

Setback for Tobacco

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision seems likely to lead to increased legal action against cigarette companies and other manufacturers.

In a 5-4 vote, Supreme Court justices ruled yesterday in the case Altria Group, Inc. v. Good, allowing a class action lawsuit by a group of smokers in Maine to go forward. Altria is the parent company of Philip Morris. The smokers claim that they were purposefully misled by Philip Morris advertisers, who marketed “light” and “lowered tar and nicotine” cigarettes as less noxious than the regular variety, Reuters reports.

Tobacco companies like Philip Morris have previously relied upon federal laws concerning cigarette packaging to preempt state laws that protect consumers from deceptive practices. Lawyers for Philip Morris assert that the Maine lawsuit has no basis because the company was in compliance with the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965, which requires tobacco companies to label cigarettes with such warnings as, “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.”

According to pharmaceutical industry news site Pharmalot, “The tobacco makers argued their labels had been approved by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and, as a result, they were preempted, or exempt, from product-liability lawsuits, because they followed packaging regulations.”

In allowing the case to proceed, the Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the smokers’ claims. The plaintiffs will still have to demonstrate that Philip Morris violated Maine’s deceptive practices law, Justice John Paul Stevens said.

Background: Preemptive Cases and Big Business

This decision represents a shift by the Supreme Court, which has tended to favor preemption, ruling that federal regulators have power over nationwide marketing practices and can block state courts from hearing lawsuits. Corporate defendants prefer preemption, as it establishes a a unified national set of regulations to follow.

Allowing the smokers’ case to go forward may open the door for similar claims against other companies, such as pharmaceutical companies, which had previously assumed their compliance with federal regulations established by the Food and Drug Administration would preempt state personal injury laws.

Opinion & Analysis: Supreme Court Ruling Good for the Consumer

A New York Times op-ed argues that there was no actual conflict between federal and state law in this case, asserting that federal laws requiring health warning labels do not preempt general state laws against consumer deception. The editorial considers the Supreme Court ruling to be a step in the right direction, potentially allowing similar lawsuits to protect individuals from big business operations. Citing recent damage by the deregulation of the mortgage industry, the writer suggests, “With this decision, the court might be indicating a greater appreciation that when companies do wrong, there needs to be a legal means of holding them accountable.”

According to The Washington Post, experts believe that the marketing of “health” cigarettes may be the biggest potential liability that tobacco companies currently face. “It is a historic day for tobacco litigation,” Edward L. Sweda Jr., senior attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University School of Law told the newspaper. Sweda went on to say that the industry had hoped for an “absolute shield of immunity for decades of wrongdoing.”

Reference: Altria Group, Inc. v. Good (07-562)

Official documentation concerning the Altria Group, Inc. v. Good case is available through the Supreme Court Web site.

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