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California Supreme Court Refuses to Shield Tobacco Industry from Accountability for Decades of Wrongdoing

Statement of Matthew L. Myers President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
August 05, 2002

Washington, DC — The California Supreme Court today handed a victory to smokers injured by decades of tobacco industry deception, product manipulation and other wrongdoing by denying the industry's request for legal immunity for all actions it took before 1998. The Court's rulings in two separate cases show that the tobacco companies face a greater liability risk, especially in California, than they have led investors to believe.

The rulings issued today, involving cases brought by individual smokers against Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, concerned two California laws – a 1988 law that prohibited most smoker liability lawsuits against the tobacco industry and a 1998 law repealing the 1988 law. In the first case, involving Philip Morris, the California Supreme Court rejected the tobacco industry's argument that the 1998 law provided it with immunity for all prior wrongdoing. The court ruled that the industry's immunity is limited to industry actions taken between 1988 and 1998, leaving the industry open to liability for the vast majority of wrongdoing reflected in the millions of pages of tobacco industry documents that have come to light. In the second case, involving R.J. Reynolds, the court ruled that even during the 1988 to 1998 period, the industry's immunity is limited and the tobacco companies can still be sued for certain actions during this period, such as manipulating cigarettes to make them more addictive.

These rulings leave the tobacco industry open to the vast majority and the most severe of the claims they are facing in California. Almost all of these cases involve industry behavior that took place before 1988 and smokers who took up their deadly habit before that time. These cases can now move forward. California juries recently have issued several multi-million dollar verdicts against the tobacco companies, indicating that they face substantial future liability risks in the state.

While these rulings are a critical step in holding the tobacco industry accountable for the carnage it has caused, they are not a substitute for the enactment of effective tobacco control policies by federal and state elected officials. Congress should pass legislation granting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration effective authority to regulate tobacco products, including the authority to stop marketing that impacts kids, and state legislators and governors should raise cigarette taxes and fund comprehensive tobacco prevention programs. These measures can quickly reduce the number of kids who start to smoke and the number of people who die from tobacco-caused disease. The mountain of evidence of tobacco industry wrongdoing that has resulted in the industry's string of defeats in the courtroom should compel the nation's elected leaders to act as well.