More tobacco torts under our tree

The Madison County Record Dec. 22, 2008, 8:24am

It will be a Merry Christmas indeed for Belleville plaintiff's lawyer Stephen Tillery.

He was one of the biggest winners this week after the U. S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a group of Maine smokers could pursue their lawsuit against "light" cigarette makers in state court.

Tillery doesn't represent them. But on the subject of suing over cigarette marketing, he may be the most singularly obsessed lawyer in the country.

The High Court ruling is his red carpet to pursue a torrent of his own suits, perhaps everywhere but mostly here in Madison County, alleging the same misdeeds of tobacco companies over their marketing of "light" or "low tar" cigarettes. Tillery thinks the companies should be punished for "misleading" smokers into thinking their habit was relatively healthier.

And we can assume he also might think he should personally be paid millions or more for doing us the favor of filing these suits. Whether we like it or not, we people of the Metro East will have a front row seat for his next wave of wallet-enriching crusading.

Yet a quandary remains. Cigarette marketing is hyper-regulated by the federal government.

When it comes to tobacco, caveat emptor hasn't reigned for decades. No slogans such as "Four in five doctors prefer Lucky Strikes!" allowed. Every pitch and slogan and letter on a label is approved by government bureaucrats charged with making sure the words are not capable of "misleading" the public into thinking smoking is something it's not.

So if Altria and the others did do what Tillery and his ilk say they did, they did it with the full faith and approval of the U.S. Government. They marketed their products precisely as Congress wanted. Is following the letter of federal law no longer a state court defense?

Dissenters noted the ruling will encourage more state lawsuits from men like Tillery. It also will undermine the Congress' authority to regulate business more broadly, while confusing everyone in business about what rules to follow. Rather than invest in employees or new products, business now will have to hire more attorneys to advise and defend.

Then there's the issue of how more lawsuits against tobacco companies impacts the taxpayers. As defense costs rise and cigarette prices go up accordingly, demand will fall. Not a problem in an ordinary market and when it comes to a hazardous product, some would view it as a good thing.

But what about state and municipal government governments everywhere that rely on tobacco tax revenue to fund their budgets? Less cigarette tax revenue means other taxes have to be raised to fill the void.

And to think the Supreme Court accomplished this in time of deep recession. At least Tillery and his cohorts will be hiring.

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