Supreme Court allows states to sue cigarette makers for fraudulent labels

The decision paves the way for state lawsuits and likely will spur legislative action aimed at holding the tobacco industry accountable for labeling and advertising.

By Amy Lynn Sorrel — Posted Feb. 6, 2009

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In a victory for public health advocates, the U.S. Supreme Court gave states the green light to sue tobacco companies for fraudulently marketing so-called light cigarettes.

The high court in a 5-4 decision rejected arguments by Altria Group Inc., the parent company of Philip Morris USA, that federal rules governing cigarette labeling and advertising trump state lawsuits. The ruling allowed a group of Maine smokers to sue the cigarette maker using the state's unfair business practices law. They alleged Altria's labels on "light" cigarettes misled consumers to believe the cigarettes delivered less tar and nicotine than regular brands and therefore were less harmful.

Altria denies the charge and claims its labels are factually accurate. The cigarette maker contended that the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act and other Federal Trade Commission regulations prohibit states from imposing various standards on cigarette warning labels.

Although federal law preempts state actions that would require additional warning statements, nothing limits "states' authority to prohibit deceptive statements in cigarette advertising," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the Dec. 15, 2008, majority opinion.

Physicians and consumer advocates applauded the decision as an important step toward holding cigarette manufacturers accountable for their actions.

The decision clears the way for dozens of similar lawsuits pending in state courts, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The organization submitted a friend-of-the-court brief along with the Litigation Center of the American Medical Association and State Medical Societies, the American Cancer Society and several other medical and public health organizations.

AMA President Nancy H. Nielsen, MD, PhD, said the ruling also highlights the need for legislative action. "Congressional action to provide the Food and Drug Administration with strong and effective regulatory authority over tobacco products is long overdue."

The House in July 2008 voted to approve such a bill, and Rep. Henry Waxman (D, Calif.), who sponsored the legislation, said he plans to move quickly to reintroduce it. President Barack Obama was among more than two dozen sponsors of a similar bill introduced in the Senate last year.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas said consumers are not without protection because "any misleading promotional statements for cigarettes remain subject to regulatory oversight." The majority ruling disrupts a uniform federal standard set by Congress and "opens the door to an untold number of deceptive practices lawsuits ... [that] would almost certainly be answered differently from state to state," Thomas wrote.

The high court came to a different conclusion in another case involving medical devices, finding that federal regulations preempt state lawsuits challenging warning labels on FDA-approved products. Meanwhile, justices are deliberating similar arguments made by pharmaceutical manufacturers in a separate case. A decision in that case is expected by June.

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