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Virginia Attorneys > Blog > General > Smoking and Lawsuits: What did Big Tobacco know, and when did they know it?

Smoking and Lawsuits: What did Big Tobacco know, and when did they know it?

By Greg Webb

Lawsuits Against Big Tobacco Companies

Many people watching old movies and even TV shows from the 60s and 70s are jarred by the amount of smoking going on. Glamorous stars cast smoldering looks as they inhale; rugged heartthrobs stoically take a drag as a reward for another damsel/ranch/platoon saved.  But surely by now, we all know the dangers, right? If you continue to smoke, do you have only yourself to blame? Maybe not.

In 2016, Philip Morris agreed to pay more than $15 million to settle a class action lawsuit that accused the cigarette maker of falsely representing Marlboro Lights as “safer” than Regular Marlboros. According to the lawsuit, Philip Morris knew that Marlboro Lights did not have significantly lower tar and were therefore no less harmful to smokers than Regular Marlboros.

Here’s a link to check out the Marlboro class action suit.

Who regulates the tobacco industry?

While lawsuits against Big Tobacco are old news, cigarette sales last year in the U.S. managed to reach about 258 billion despite the millions of deaths each year linked to smoking and nicotine addiction. So why do so many consumers continue to “light-up” and ignore the industry’s health warnings on cigarette packages? Why do these same consumers think they have the right to sue companies like Phillip Morris for damages when they choose to smoke?

“Judging from a historical distance, it makes sense that there must have been a time when the tobacco men didn’t know (or believe) that cigarettes could cause cancer,” says Robert N. Proctor in his book Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition.  This seems to be the real question for attorneys and plaintiffs seeking compensation from Big Tobacco. When did the tobacco companies first know about the harmful side-effects of cigarette smoking and what did they do about it?

When was smoking discovered to be bad for you?

Since 1953, and perhaps even earlier, “secret documents” revealed that the cigarette manufacturers knew about a link between smoking and cancer, yet conspired to hide the fact from consumers. Furthermore, some detractors believe that cigarette makers ignored those risks and actually went to great lengths to make smoking more addictive. [Golden Holocaust, Prologue]  “Surveys show that most smokers want to quit and regret having ever started…Very few people who drink are addicted—only 3 percent, compared with 80 to 90 percent of smokers of cigarettes.”  [Golden Holocaust, Prologue]

In 1965, the U.S. Government required cigarette makers to put warning labels on cigarette packages, but the “warnings” (“… may be harmful…”) were not introduced on actual packages until 1966.  Was this too little, too late? Do these warning messages make a difference? Not to those addicted to smoking, which is at the heart of ongoing lawsuits against tobacco companies accused of knowingly conspiring to make cigarettes addictive and targeting youngsters through mass marketing.  “A great deal of talent has gone into making the cigarette an instrument of chemical dependency: by artfully crafting its physical character and chemistry, industry scientists have managed to create an optimally addictive drug delivery device, one that virtually sells itself.”
[Golden Holocaust, Prologue]

Despite the known risk of cancer associated with smoking, 20 percent of American teens smoke and most of them began before the end of high school. “Kids smoke despite the knowledge that smoking is addictive and leads to disease.” [smoker.net]

Incredibly, in the United States alone, 400,000 babies are born every year to mothers who smoke during pregnancy, despite the increased risk of stillbirth, premature delivery and low birth weight this incurs. These mothers most likely began smoking in their teens, attracted by slick advertising campaigns including skywriting, comic books, movie product placement, and candy cigarettes.

Smoking Cigarettes — A Lethal Habit

There is no question that smoking cigarettes is potentially lethal, both for the smoker and for those who inhale the resulting second-hand smoke. In addition to the links to many types of cancer, cigarette smoking also causes premature aging, asthma, and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) among other life-threatening diseases.

The risks are the same, but the perspective on those risks is different for young versus older smokers given that it can take years for smoking to wreak its havoc and most people who die from smoking-related causes tend to be older. [healdove.com]  It should be noted, however, that on average, the life expectancy for smokers is at least 10 years shorter than for nonsmokers.

Click to view a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Tabacco-Related Mortality Rates

Can you sue a tobacco company?

How is it then that we still read about cigarette manufacturers being successfully sued in some states?  These cases are filed in certain states for a variety of reasons, including demographics and state law, but what nearly all of them have in common are smoking victims, usually deceased, who were addicted as children or adolescents in the 1950’s or early 1960’s before package warnings, and while Big Tobacco manipulated nicotine levels to create “smokers for life.” It is the addictive nature, and the manipulation of those qualities, that lie at the heart of most of these cases. Nicotine, many medical professionals argue, is more addictive than heroin or cocaine. Big Tobacco has known this for decades and has concocted ingenious methods to market and deliver nicotine.

The bottom line is that Big Tobacco has known about the deadly effects of cigarettes long before its consumers did, since at least 1953. And it has known about the highly addictive nature of nicotine since at least the early 1960s.  Most consumers did not know of these qualities (addictiveness and lethality) when Big Tobacco did. And the tobacco industry’s marketing was spectacular in pulling in young people and getting them hooked.  This is part of the conduct by Big Tobacco that leads to verdicts against it.

Article written by J. Gregory (Greg) Webb, MichieHamlett Personal Injury Litigation – Plaintiffs Attorney.

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