Altria Awaits Supreme Court Ruling on 'Lights' Lawsuit

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Altria Awaits Supreme Court Ruling on 'Lights' Lawsuit

NEW YORK— The U.S. Supreme opened it 2009 calendar today with two pending cases sure to pique the interest of tobacco industry insiders.

The court is hearing the first of two arguments involving Altria Group Inc.’s Philip Morris USA unit. First on the docket: determining if smokers can sue over the use of "light" cigarettes, reported Bloomberg. The justices will later revisit a $79.5 million award to a smoker, hearing a Philip Morris appeal in that case for a second time.

A Philip Morris victory in the light cigarette case could block as many as 40 similar lawsuits that seek billions of dollars from Philip Morris, Reynolds American Inc.’s R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and other cigarette makers. Bloomberg reported.

"The big litigation threat against the industry these days are these light-cigarette cases,” David Vladeck, a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington who filed a brief supporting the smokers in the case, told the news organization. "So the industry is hoping they'll get rid of them in one fell swoop."

Morgan Stanley tobacco analyst David Adelman said he expects the Supreme Court to "provide a final knockout blow to lights litigation."

The justices will review a lawsuit that accuses Philip Morris, the nation’s largest cigarette maker, of violating Maine’s consumer protection statute by fraudulently portraying lights as safer than other cigarettes, reported Bloomberg.

The suit seeks to recover the money smokers spent on Philip Morris’s Marlboro Lights and Cambridge Lights through November 2002, plus punitive damages. A federal appeals court in Boston ruled the case could go forward.

Philip Morris contends the lights suits are preempted by U.S. Federal Trade Commission policies, including its oversight of cigarette testing. According to a company statement, the lawsuits would interfere with “the FTC’s longstanding policy of encouraging consumers to rely on the standardized tar and nicotine information conveyed” by those tests.