December 16, 2008 - In a surprise 5-4 decision this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal law does not preempt a state lawsuit brought by Maine smokers claiming that Altria, parent company of Philip Morris, fraudulently advertised health benefits of "light" cigarettes. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the opinion, which runs against the Court's recent trend finding in favor of federal preemption of state lawsuits against businesses. Joining Stevens were Justices Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito Jr. Thomas warned that the majority opinion will trigger "an untold number of deceptive-practices lawsuits across the country."`
The suit, filed under the Maine Unfair Trade Practices Law, alleges that Altria misled consumers into believing that "light" cigarettes which contain less tar were less dangerous than regular varieties to smoke. The suit says the companies knew smokers typically make-up the difference in tar by taking longer or deeper puffs. Similar suits are pending in other states, exposing the tobacco industry to a new avenue of attack by smoking opponents.
Reference: Altria Case Deals Blow to Efforts Reining In Lawsuits by JESS BRAVIN, The Wall Street Journal, 12/15/2008; Supreme Court Rules Against Big Tobacco, The Blog of Legal Times, 12/15/2008.
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