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Tobacco Lawsuits


Since studies surfaced linking cigarettes to lung cancer — a disease that costs the U.S. more than $300 billion each year — Americans spent decades filing lawsuits against Big Tobacco. Cigarette makers paid out billions in settlements. Research also found smoking worsens other diseases such as asbestos lung cancer, leading to more lawsuits.

In 1881, after the invention of the cigarette-making machine, tobacco as an American industry took off, becoming a major economic driver and a staple in roughly half of American households. The upward trend in popularity changed in the mid-1960s, however, when in 1964 the U.S. Surgeon General’s office released a report linking cigarette smoking to the development of lung cancer.

Since that year, more than 20 million Americans have died due to the effects of smoking, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Of those who haven’t died from their smoking addiction, millions live with at least one condition caused by smoking — like asthma or diabetes — or aggravated by the habit — like asbestos lung cancer.

As a result, Americans have spent more than 60 years taking Big Tobacco to court and have won several landmark cases.

Key Tobacco Lawsuits

Although there is a long history of tobacco lawsuits, most were unsuccessful until the late 1990s. The first phase of lawsuits, spanning from the late 1950s to the 1970s, were individual cases against Big Tobacco that claimed breach of warranty, misrepresentation and negligence. Tobacco companies called the validity of these new scientific studies into question to discredit the plaintiff’s claims. According to the Public Health Law Center, very few of these cases went to trial and none were successful.

The second wave of tobacco lawsuits, in the 1980s and early 1990s, were also mostly unsuccessful. Many of these cases charged Big Tobacco with failing to warn and strict liability. However, tobacco companies destroyed scientific research and continued shrouding health studies linking smoking with lung cancer in doubt. All but one case — the famous Cipollone v. Liggett — failed, and the Cipollone case was eventually overturned.

The third phase of tobacco litigation began in 1994 and found much success. During this time, the attorney generals of all 50 states sued Big Tobacco for Medicaid costs used to pay for smoking-related health conditions, claiming the companies had deceptive and fraudulent marketing, marketed to children and conspired to conceal the health effects of smoking cigarettes. Big Tobacco settled in 1998, agreeing to pay $206 billion — the largest settlement in U.S. history. In 2006 a U.S. District Court judge also ruled Big Tobacco had fraudulently covered up the risks associated with smoking and marketed their products to children, violating the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act.

Since then, plaintiffs have continued to file class action suits against Big Tobacco, some resulting in significant settlements.

Cipollone v. Liggett

In 1984, lifelong smoker Rose Cipollone died of lung cancer at age 58. Before she died, she and her family took Liggett Group — the maker of Chesterfield and L & M Filters cigarettes — to court for a product liability claim, arguing Liggett was liable for her disease and ultimate death. Although Liggett argued Cipollone smoked at her own risk, the jury ruled the tobacco industry was partially to blame because she had been smoking since before warning labels were issued on cigarette cartons. They awarded Cipollone’s family a $400,000 in damages for Liggett’s breach of warranty in 1988, although an appellate court later overturned the award. After exhausting all of their financial resources, the Cipollone family dropped its 10-year lawsuit in 1992.

Although the case was ultimately unsuccessful, it is significant in the history of tobacco lawsuits because it broadened the terms under which smokers could sue the tobacco industry, and it was the first time tobacco (even if just temporarily) had to award a settlement to a plaintiff.

Master Settlement Agreement

In 1994, the attorney generals of Mississippi and several other states sued the four major tobacco companies — Philip Morris USA, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard — for violating state consumer protection and antitrust laws, and argued the health effects of smoking posed significant costs to public healthcare systems. Mississippi, Minnesota, Florida and Texas reached settlements with defendants to recover Medicaid costs in 1997.

Meanwhile, several other states began to file similar lawsuits against Big Tobacco. Although Congress did not pass a global settlement agreement, which Big Tobacco and the states both petitioned for. However, the companies did reach a settlement with the remaining 46 states on their own in November 1998, which is known as the Master Settlement Agreement.

The Master Settlement Agreement awarded the 46 states $206 billion over the period of many years. The agreement also imposed new restrictions on tobacco advertising, prohibited practices that would hide negative information about smoking, created a tobacco prevention foundation and required the four tobacco companies to release all non-privileged data they had discovered about the health effects of smoking. The settlement is the largest in U.S. history.

United States v. Philip Morris

In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice sued several Big Tobacco companies — most notably, Philip Morris — for fraudulently marketing its products as safe to the American public and marketing to children, and sought reimbursement for medical expenses.
While the court dismissed the plaintiff’s request for reimbursement, it allowed the rest of the case to continue, bringing the claim under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act.

In 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ruled the tobacco companies as liable for violating RICO. The historic opinion states Big Tobacco “engaged in and executed — and continue to engage in and execute — a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public.” Although the tobacco companies filed an appeal, three U.S. Court of Appeals judges unanimously upheld Kessler’s ruling in 2009.

Big Tobacco Companies

“Big Tobacco” refers to the major corporations in the tobacco industry, which is responsible for billions in revenue in the U.S. each year, let alone international profits. Many tobacco lawsuits have sought damages against these companies, particularly because they own more than one brand of cigarettes or other tobacco products.

As capitalism continues to allow for the purchase and sale of large corporations, the list of Big Tobacco is always changing.

In 1997, Big Tobacco named in the Master Settlement Agreement were:

  • Philip Morris Companies (Marlboro, Virginia Slims, etc.)
  • R.J. Reynolds Nabisco Holdings Corporation (Camel, Winston, etc.)
  • B.A.T. Industries PLC (Kool, Lucky Strike, Misty, etc.)
  • Loews Corporation (Newport, Old Gold, etc.)
  • Booke Group Limited (Chesterfield, L & M, etc.)
  • UST Incorporated (Copenhagen, Skoal)
  • The Costs of Tobacco Side Effects

    Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show smoking costs the U.S. more than $300 billion each year, including roughly $170 billion for medical care and $156 billion due to secondhand smoke exposure and lost productivity caused by premature death. Individual states also spend billions on tobacco prevention and education advertisements.

    Lung Cancer

    Of all the types of cancer, lung cancer is the leading cause of deaths in America and worldwide. Studies prove smoking causes up to 85 percent of lung cancer cases. In 2009, scientists with the National Cancer Institute of Mexico studied the costs of treating lung cancer. They found the cost varied between stages, but the weighted annual average cost per patient was $139,801. Of that amount, researchers attributed $92,269 to smoking.

    Cost of lung cancer treatment in U.S. dollars
    Stage I $13,456
    Stage II $35,648
    Stage III $106,186
    Stage IV $144,555

    Asbestos Lung Cancer

    Not only does smoking cause several serious health conditions, but smoking also increases many populations’ chances of developing other dangerous conditions. For example, many research studies show people who are exposed to asbestos — which can cause asbestos lung cancer — and who also smoke are more likely to get the cancer than nonsmokers who were exposed.

    How high the risk is varies from study to study. One 2009 study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine showed asbestos-exposed smokers were 50 – 90 times more likely to get asbestos lung cancer than nonsmokers exposed to asbestos.

    Another study from the American Thoracic Society in 2013 found:

    • Asbestos-exposed nonsmokers were 5.2 times more likely to die from lung cancer
    • Asbestos-exposed smokers were 28 times more likely to die from lung cancer
    • Asbestos-exposed smokers with asbestosis were 36.8 times more likely to die of lung cancer than the general population

    Asbestos Lung Cancer Lawsuits

    Asbestos lung cancer lawsuits have become incredibly common in the 2000s, and many plaintiffs have won damages against employers and companies who exposed workers and consumers to the deadly toxin that can cause lung cancer. Westlaw Journal Asbestos reported the average award in an asbestos lawsuit, such as an asbestos lung cancer lawsuit, was $6.3 million in 2009, $17.6 million in 2010 and $10.5 million in 2011.

    Armed with scientific evidence that proves smoking increases an asbestos-exposed person’s chances of developing asbestos lung cancer by vast amounts, smokers who have been exposed to asbestos and have developed asbestosis or asbestos lung cancer may also be successful in lawsuits against tobacco companies.

    Current Lawsuit Trends in Tobacco

    As the popularity of conventional cigarettes has decreased, the 2010s saw a rise in use of alternative cigarettes called electronic or e-cigarettes. Consumers use these battery-operated devices that are often shaped like real cigarettes to vaporize and inhale liquid nicotine. E-cigarettes have become increasingly popular with youths and teens. One Centers for Disease Control and Prevention press release revealed the number of middle and high school students using e-cigarettes tripled between 2013 and 2014 to roughly 2.5 million students.

    Plaintiffs have already begun to file a variety of cases against e-cigarette manufacturers. In California, the Center for Environment Health launched a lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds, Imperial Tobacco and NJOY in 2015 claiming the companies do not warn consumers about cancer-causing chemicals in their e-cigarettes and the health effects of nicotine.

    At least three more plaintiffs filed e-cigarette cases in California in 2015 related to the dangers of the devices that the suits claim are unsafe for use. In one case, the plaintiff had to have surgery on his tongue and one finger amputated after his e-cigarette exploded while he was using it.

    Who is Eligible to Sue

    Most tobacco litigation falls under product liability claims. Any person who has used tobacco products and has developed a health condition scientifically linked to tobacco use can sue individually or in a class action lawsuit. However, users are not eligible to file such a suit until the injury manifests. People exposed to secondhand smoke and have a manifested injury from cigarette smoke are also eligible to sue.

    In addition, people who have developed other conditions aggravated by smoking, such as asbestos lung cancer, are also eligible to sue tobacco companies in addition to any asbestos lawsuits they may have filed. Some groups are more likely to have been exposed to asbestos than others, and if such a person was a smoker, their chances of developing asbestos lung cancer can increase by up to 90%. These groups include current and former:

    • Military personnel
    • Firefighters
    • Construction workers
    • Ship builders
    • Industrial or trade workers
    • Power plant workers
    • Miners

    Attorneys are now also accepting lawsuits against e-cigarette companies for any ill health effects linked to their use, defective products or illegal marketing related to selling tobacco products to minors, claiming the products — which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved — are safe and are a proven secession aid to smoking cigarettes.