Dec. 15 2008
Washington, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court today handed down a major victory for consumers and public health by ruling that smokers can use state consumer protection laws to sue Philip Morris and other tobacco companies for deceptive marketing of "light" and "low-tar" cigarettes. Today's ruling poses a significant legal threat to the tobacco industry and is an important step toward holding cigarette manufacturers accountable for decades of deceptive and harmful marketing of "light" cigarettes. This decision, in a Maine case called Altria Group, Inc., v. Good, clears the way for more than 40 "light" cigarette lawsuits in more than 20 states to move forward. These lawsuits contend that cigarette manufacturers violated state consumer protection laws by marketing some cigarette brands as "light" and delivering "lowered tar and nicotine" to smokers despite knowing that these claims were not true.
Today's ruling comes on the heels of decisive action last month by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) prohibiting tobacco companies from claiming that tar and nicotine ratings on cigarette packs are government approved. The FTC found that the machine test currently used to measure tar and nicotine exposure (called the "Cambridge Filter Method" or "FTC method") is flawed, does not provide useful information to consumers and is likely to mislead consumers.
While the Supreme Court ruling and the FTC's action are important steps in holding the tobacco industry accountable, they also underscore the need for legislation pending before Congress to grant the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory authority over tobacco products and marketing. The lack of regulation has allowed the tobacco industry to get away with the deceptive marketing of "light" and "low-tar" cigarettes, which continues today, and leaves the industry free to find new ways to deceive consumers in the future. The legislation before Congress would finally ban deceptive terms such as "light" and "low-tar." It would grant the FDA authority to strictly regulate any health claims about tobacco products to ensure they are scientifically proven and are not marketed in ways that encourage new smokers to start or discourage current smokers from quitting. The FDA would also have authority to require new testing methods, as sought by the FTC action, to more accurately measure levels of tar, nicotine and other constituents in tobacco products, to use this information to require changes in tobacco products and to decide whether to publicly release this information.
The U.S. House of Representatives on July 30 voted 326 to 102 to approve this legislation, and it has 60 sponsors in the Senate, including President-elect Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. This legislation presents the incoming Administration and Congress with the opportunity for an early, bipartisan victory that would significantly improve the nation's health. We urge the new Congress to move quickly to enact this legislation when it convenes in January.
Numerous public health authorities, including the National Cancer Institute in a landmark 2001 report, have found that cigarette manufacturers for decades have deceptively marketed "light" and "low-tar" cigarettes as reducing smokers' health risks despite knowing from their own research that this was not the case. The scientific evidence is clear that machine-based measures of tar and nicotine do not provide meaningful information about the amounts of tar and nicotine that smokers actually receive or about the relative health risks of different cigarettes. That is because the tobacco industry has been able to design cigarettes to undermine the validity of the test and because the machine test does not take into account the way actual smokers adjust their smoking behavior, for example by taking more or deeper puffs or blocking ventilation levels to maintain nicotine levels.
In an August 2006 ruling that the tobacco companies have violated civil racketeering laws, U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler found that the tobacco company defendants "falsely marketed and promoted 'low tar' and 'light' cigarettes as less harmful than full-flavor cigarettes in order to keep people smoking and sustain corporate revenues."