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Tuesday, September 28, 1999 Published at 13:59 GMT 14:59 UK

World: Americas

The US tobacco wars

For decades, cigarette firms managed to fend off legal challenges

For 40 years, the US tobacco industry was invincible in court.

Tobacco companies have long been among the most profitable in the US, and used that money to fund a seemingly unbeatable legal defence team.

A failed first

Tobacco wars
  • The US legal battle
  • Tobacco economics
  • Smoking goes global
  • Cigarette health file
  • Timeline: the tobacco war
  • Before the early 1950s, the US tobacco industry did not worry much about its public image. Business boomed, and the public knew little of the effects tobacco had on their health.

    That changed with the publication of an article "Cancer by the Carton" in the popular magazine Reader's Digest in 1952.

    Within two years, the tobacco industry faced its first lawsuit.

    [ image:  ]
    Eva Cooper sued RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company in the death of her husband from lung cancer.

    Legal experts at the time believed that it would be the first of many lawsuits, and they believed that plaintiffs, such as Mrs Cooper, would be rewarded handsomely. The tobacco industry proved them wrong.

    The court ruled that there was no evidence that smoking caused cancer. It was the first in an unbroken string of 300 victories by the tobacco industry over plaintiffs.

    [ image:  ]
    Two other cases were filed that year, and both lasted into the next decade. The plaintiff in Pritchard v Liggett & Myers dropped the suit after 12 years.

    Also in 1954, a Missouri smoker, who had lost his larynx to cancer, sued Philip Morris. The case did not go to jury until 1962, when they deliberated for one hour before deciding in favour of the tobacco giant.

    For years, the tobacco industry managed to outspend and outlast its opponents.

    A chink in the armour

    Rose Cipollone started smoking in 1942, when she was 17 years old. She continued to smoke for more than 40 years, even after she lost a right lobe of her lung to cancer in 1981.

    [ image:  ]
    By 1983, she was dying. She quit smoking and filed a lawsuit against the tobacco industry. She died the next year of lung cancer at the age of 58. Her lawsuit continued.

    In 1988, the trial brought to light a study called "Motives and Incentives of Cigarette Smoking." The 1972 confidential report prepared by the Philip Morris Research Centre said, "think of the cigarette as a dispenser for a dose of nicotine."

    It was the first in a series of industry documents that would dent the legal defence of tobacco. The judge said that he found evidence of a conspiracy by three tobacco companies that was "vast in its scope, devious in its purpose, and devastating in its results."

    The Liggett Group was ordered to pay Rose Cipollone's widower $400,000 in compensatory damages.

    [ image:  ]
    The court found that Liggett had made an express warranty that its products were safe in the years before warning labels were required for cigarettes.

    It was the first monetary award given in a liability suit against a tobacco company.

    However, the award was later overturned, and the plaintiffs could not afford to pursue the case.

    A change in fortunes

    Apart from wearing down opponents, tobacco companies had relied on the legal defence of "contributing negligence."

    This defence stalled lawsuits by plaintiffs who were assumed to have had some measure of responsibility for their condition.

    [ image: Smokers in the US knew little of the dangers of smoking until the 1950s]
    Smokers in the US knew little of the dangers of smoking until the 1950s
    But state laws and legal precedents now allowed plaintiffs to hold manufacturers more responsible for their products and in many jurisdictions eliminated "contributing negligence" as a defence argument.

    1994 proved to be a turning point for tobacco lawsuits. Diane Castano, whose husband died of lung cancer, sued the tobacco industry.

    It grew to become the largest potential class action suit in history with a legal team of 60 lawyers.

    In that same year, Mississippi became the first state to sue the tobacco industry to recoup the healthcare costs for smokers.

    These two cases changed the legal landscape of tobacco litigation. States and smokers armed with damning internal tobacco industry documents renewed their fight.

    In 1996, the Liggett Group broke with the industry and settled healthcare and addiction lawsuits, with the hope of preventing future suits.

    Within two years, the rest of the tobacco industry would settle with states and smokers, but lawsuits by individuals and the federal government continue.

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