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A ruling in federal court today has set the stage for another huge lawsuit against the tobacco industry. A judge in New York has allowed a class action suit to go forward against the makers of so-called light cigarettes. Attorneys claim tobacco companies deceived smokers by claiming lights were less dangerous than regular cigarettes.
NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.
ADAM HOCHBERG: The massive class action lawsuit represents tens of millions of people, anybody who ever smoked cigarettes like Marlboro Lights or Camel Ultra-lights since the products were put on the market more than 30 years ago. The suit claims the products' very existence was part of a fraudulent scheme - a deliberate effort by the tobacco industry to hide the risks of smoking. Plaintiffs' lawyer Michael Hausfeld is seeking billions of dollars in damages on behalf of people who he says were taken in by the industry's claims.
Mr. MICHAEL HAUSFELD (Plaintiffs' counsel): Back in the late ‘60s, the tobacco companies came up with the concept of lights, emphasizing that lights were safer than regular cigarettes and/or less hazardous than a regular cigarette, when in fact they knew, literally from the very beginning, that was not true.
HOCHBERG: Hausfeld says more than 90 percent of the people who smoked light cigarettes did so because of health concerns, and the suit claims tobacco company sales increased as much as $200 billion as a result. If jurors agree with that figure, they could potentially award three times that amount, as much as $600 billion in damages. Tobacco companies are trying to put a halt to the suit long before it reaches that point.
Today, both RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris USA said they'd appeal the judge's decision that allows the case to proceed. Bill Ohlemeyer is an attorney at Philip Morris' parent company, Altria Group. In a telephone conference call with reporters this afternoon, Ohlemeyer said people knew the risks of smoking lights.
Mr. BILL OHLEMEYER (Altria Group): Marlboro Light cigarettes were not introduced until 1972, and every pack that was ever sold had a health warning on it that Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court had decided are adequate to fully inform people about the risks of smoking.
HOCHBERG: During a hearing on the case earlier this month, veteran Federal Judge Jack Weinstein expressed skepticism with parts of the plaintiffs' case. Still, Weinstein ruled today the plaintiffs are entitled to present their arguments to a jury. Stanford University law professor Robert Rabin says class action suits against tobacco companies are hard to win, as courts often conclude that people smoke for many reasons, not just because they fall prey to industry marketing campaigns.
Professor ROBIN RABIN (Stanford University): It's very important to sort out whether individual smokers were deceived from the question of whether the company acted in a deceptive fashion, because it may be that that deceptive conduct on their part was interpreted differently by different individual smokers, and indeed that some didn't rely on it at all.
HOCHBERG: Regardless of the outcome of this case, light cigarettes likely are becoming a thing of the past. In a separate ruling this summer, a different federal judge banned the major tobacco companies from selling light, mild or low tar products in the U.S., agreeing smokers were deceived about their dangers. Unless that decision is overturned on appeal, the products will have to take on new names or be removed from the market entirely on January 1.
Adam Hochberg, NPR News.
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