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Washington State Files Massive Suit Against Tobacco Firms

Litigation: Action, paralleling that of other states, seeks millions of dollars spent on smoking-related illnesses.

June 06, 1996|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

The state of Washington on Wednesday filed a massive lawsuit against the tobacco industry, seeking millions of dollars in damages for costs the state incurred treating people with smoking-related illnesses.

The suit, which parallels those filed by eight other states, alleges that eight cigarette companies and two trade organizations concealed information on nicotine's addictive qualities and the deadly consequences of tobacco use.

The suit, filed in Seattle, also asserts that the industry manipulated nicotine levels to keep smokers hooked, conspired to keep "safer" cigarettes off the market and conducted sophisticated marketing campaigns aimed directly at children with the knowledge that kids who use tobacco become addicted adults.

"The tobacco industry has targeted our kids, withheld safer products and deliberately misled the public about the safety of smoking," Washington Atty. Gen. Christine Gregoire said at a news conference, where Washington Gov. Mike Lowry, officials of the state health department and representatives of several anti-smoking organizations were present.

Gregoire said Washington spends $706 million a year on smoking-related health-care costs. She noted that state health officials estimate that "each hour 1,500 cigarettes are illegally sold to minors."

In the suit, filed in Kings County Superior Court, the attorney general's office asks for payment of "millions of dollars in health and medical costs" and for the tobacco companies to be forced to disgorge profits from tobacco sales to minors.

The suit also asks a judge to order tobacco companies to "stop engaging in deceptive and unfair advertising," publicly disclose all research related to smoking and health, and fund public education campaigns and stop-smoking programs.

Lawyers for the tobacco companies, the Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research have denied any wrongdoing in all the cases and said they will prevail in court. Industry lawyers also contend that the state suits are an attempt to sidestep traditional tort law procedures. In 40 years of health-related litigation, no plaintiff has ever collected a dime of damages from a cigarette company.

It had been public knowledge for months that Washington was considering such a suit. Jon Ferguson, senior counsel at the Washington attorney general's office, said tobacco industry lawyers had met with state attorneys on three occasions and attempted to dissuade the state from suing.

On Wednesday, Gregoire stressed that she does not take the filing of lawsuits lightly. She said that after a year and a half of research, she was convinced that the state has "compelling legal claims" and "highly credible evidence of deceptive tobacco industry tactics."

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