U.S. Supreme Court OKs lawsuits over light cigarettes

By Chris Rizo | Dec 16, 2008

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline)-Smokers can sue over deceptive marketing of so-called light cigarettes, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The tobacco company Altria Group asked the nation's highest high court to block a class action lawsuit by a group of Maine smokers who say they were misled by the company's advertising that so-called "light" and "low tar" cigarettes are a safer alternative to regular cigarettes.

The class sued Altria Group and its Philip Morris USA unit, claiming they broke Maine state law barring deceptive business practices.

The justices ruled 5-4 on Monday that federal law doesn't shield cigarette makers from state lawsuits accusing them of deceiving consumers by marketing "light" or "low tar" cigarette brands.

Altria argued the case should not move forward since tobacco products are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, not by individual states. Specifically, Altria said the claims are preempted by the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965.

In a statement, Altria said while it was disappointed by the court's ruling, the company noted the justices found no liability.

"We continue to view these cases as manageable, and the company will assert many of the strong defenses used successfully in the past to defend against this very type of case," said Murray Garnick, Altria's client services senior vice president and associate general counsel.

A federal judge originally dismissed the class action against the cigarette maker, but the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston overturned the decision.

In a brief to the Supreme Court, the National Association of Manufacturers wrote that if the appeals court decision was affirmed that the nation's manufacturers could be "profoundly affected" because they would not be able to rely on their respective federal regulators with certainty.

"Manufacturers need the assurance of the court that in relying upon the guidance of federal regulators, they will not expose themselves to state law liability in different courts across the country," the brief said.

Associate Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the court's majority opinion. He was joined by Associate Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter.

Dissenting were Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

The case is Altria v. Good, 07-562.

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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