Lawsuits assailing the well-known dangers of smoking have a long history, and, the consequences for the tobacco industry will never end. Before a short history of the legal journey against the tobacco companies, an understanding of tobacco’s negatives is in order.
Smoking ranks among the dumbest things you can do if you care about your health. To be a member of society now means you have heard and you have seen all of the health warnings, including from every doctor, every scientist, and, most importantly, from the cigarette companies themselves.
From the Centers For Disease Control:
Cigarette smoking harms nearly every organ in the body, causes many diseases, and can kill the smoker years before that person would have otherwise passed.
Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.
More than 10 times as many citizens have died prematurely from smoking than have died in all of the wars fought by the U.S. Estimates suggest that by the 2020’s, there will be over 2 million lung cancer deaths alone, per year. When all smoking-related health maladies are considered, the number jumps to 6 million deaths per year. That equates to about one death every five seconds.
Smoking causes about 90% of all lung cancer deaths, and more women die from lung cancer each year than from breast cancer.
Smoking increases the risk of teeth and gum decay, tooth loss, cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, (AMD), type 2 diabetes mellitus, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), coronary heart disease, and stroke. Smoking causes cancer in the bladder, blood, cervix, colon and rectum, esophagus, kidney, larynx, liver, pancreas, stomach, trachea, bone health, bronchus and lungs.
For pregnant women, smoking increases the risks of preterm delivery, stillbirth, child low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome, ectopic pregnancy, facial clefts, miscarriage and other child birth defects.
For men, among causing other health problems, smoking adversely affects sperm.
This list is not exhaustive.
Tobacco Companies were, and still are bad guys
There was a global lung cancer epidemic in the early 1900’s. Cigarettes were recognized as the cause by the 1950’s, with the accumulation of studies, animal experiments and chemical analytics.
The tobacco industry was aware, and continuously spent ridiculous amounts of money to deny and distract the public from the cigarette-cancer link.
Armed with knowledge then, lawsuits aplenty were filed seeking to obtain redress for wrongs and harms. Smokers, their families and the government have been filing lawsuits for more than fifty years.
Legal theories in these lawsuits included negligent manufacture, product liability, negligent advertising, fraud and violation of state consumer protection laws.
Like any child caught assaulting the cookie jar, tobacco companies fought back. They argued that tobacco was not harmful, that smoker’s cancer was caused by other factors, and that smokers assumed the risk of cancer when they decided to smoke. In most early cases, the tobacco companies won.
Aha! Assumption of the risk! Introducing the next round of lawsuits!
Companies: You are responsible for what happens to you if you smoke.
Smoker: But what if I’m addicted?
Smoker: You sold me something you knew was bad for me, and it was addictive, and I can’t stop.
Private actions had that “assumption of the risk” problem, until a landmark Supreme Court case, Cipollone v. Liggett, was decided in 1992. The Court held that the Surgeon General’s warning did not preclude individuals from suing the tobacco companies. Rose Cipollone’s husband sued, claiming that the cigarette manufacturers knew, but did not warn consumers, that smoking caused lung cancer and that cigarettes were addictive.
By the 1990’s smokers and their families starting winning damages lawsuits against the cigarette manufacturers. Documents were leaked and used in courtrooms, showing that the companies were aware of the addictive nature of tobacco.
The first “big” win for a plaintiff occurred in California, in 2000, when Phillip Morris was ordered to pay $51.5 million to a smoker who developed inoperable lung cancer.
Lawsuits filed by states
Government actions were not about individual claims, but about recovering health care costs and stopping fraudulent advertising. Hence, no “assumption of the risk” defenses were involved.
Leading up to 1998, more than 40 states filed lawsuits against the cigarette companies under state consumer protection and antitrust laws. They argued that smoking contributed to health problems that required states to pay for significant extra healthcare costs.
By 1998, the attorneys general of 46 states and four of the largest tobacco companies agreed to settle the state cases. In what was called the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), the companies were required to refrain from engaging in certain advertising practices, particularly targeting children; and companies had to pay annual sums of money to the states to compensate them for added smoking-related health-care costs (over $206 billion for the first 25 years). The terms of the MSA require annual payments to the states to continue, forever.
The MSA also created and funded the National Public Education Foundation, dedicated to reducing youth smoking.
An article appeared in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute after the MSA was reached. It cited their researchers’ views that not enough of the MSA money was being spent on anti-smoking measures. “The MSA was an opportunity lost to curb cigarette use.”
Robert Levy, of the Cato Institute, on the MSA: The states extorted a quarter-trillion-dollar settlement that was passed along to consumers in higher cigarette prices.
Action and Lawsuit filed by the Federal government
Recognizing the negatives of smoking, in 1970 Congress passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which banned cigarette ads on television and radio. The last cigarette commercial was a Virginia Slim ad that aired at 11:59 p.m. on December 31, 1970, on The Tonight Show.
The next action by the federal government of major significance was to follow the states’ lawsuit against big tobacco. In 1999 a lawsuit was filed which alleged fraudulent and unlawful conduct, and which sought reimbursement of tobacco-related medical expenses paid out by the government. Among the government’s claims:
- mislead the public about smoking risks
- mislead the public about second-hand smoking risks
- misrepresented the addictiveness of nicotine
- manipulated the nicotine delivery of cigarettes
- deceptively marketed cigarettes as “light” or “low tar” knowing these were equally hazardous as full flavored cigarettes
- targeted the youth market, and
- failed to produce safer cigarettes
In August, 2017, the judge hearing the case issued a 1,683 opinion holding the tobacco companies liable:
As set forth in these Final Proposed Findings of Fact, substantial evidence establishes that Defendants have engaged in and executed – and continue to engage in and execute – a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public, including consumers of cigarettes…
Lawsuits filed by individuals
Individuals banded together and filed class action lawsuits against the cigarette makers. A Florida Supreme Court case in 2006 disrupted that class-action plan. In the ruling the court found that “tobacco companies knew they were selling dangerous products and were keeping smoking risks concealed,” but the Court said the case could not go forward as a class, that each case must be proven individually.
In a 2014 wrongful death lawsuit against RJ Reynolds, a jury awarded more than $23 billion in punitive damages to a widow for her husband’s smoking related death. The next year a Florida appeals court reduced the award to under $17 million.
Product liability and wrongful death claims continue to be filed against the tobacco companies.
No amount of money to a smoker, or to his or her survivors, is worth smoking. For those addicted, every effort should be made to stop, to get help and to heal. The second priority, after better health, is the possibility of a lawsuit.
From the CDC:
- Quitting smoking cuts cardiovascular risks: just one year after quitting your risk for heart attack drops sharply.
- Within 2-5 years after quitting your risk for stroke reduces to that of a non-smoker
- Within 2-5 years, risks for cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus and bladder drop to half
- Ten years after quitting your risk for lung cancer drops by half.
For every parent alive, among the things that children MUST be taught: DO NOT SMOKE.
CURRENT SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNINGS on cigarette packs:
Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy.
Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health.