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Suit Targets Smokeless Tobacco Industry

Courts: San Francisco case accuses firms of targeting teenagers and failing to adequately warn of dangers.

April 01, 1998|MYRON LEVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The city and county of San Francisco and an environmental group Tuesday sued producers and retailers of smokeless tobacco products, accusing them of targeting underage consumers and failing to comply with California's "right to know" law on toxics.

With the recent explosion of anti-tobacco lawsuits aimed mainly at cigarette makers, the case is among the first to target the smokeless tobacco industry, led by U.S. Tobacco Co., the maker of Skoal and Copenhagen snuff.

Along with UST, the suit filed in San Francisco Superior Court names five other smokeless makers and 10 retailers who sell their snuff and chewing tobacco brands. According to the lawsuit, their efforts to sell the addictive products to teenage boys violates state laws against unfair and deceptive business practices.

The suit contends that the defendants are also in violation of Proposition 65, the state's toxics warning law, because the rotating warnings affixed to smokeless products do not adequately warn of cancer risk.

In a prepared statement, UST said the lawsuit "is without merit" and that it will "defend itself vigorously." The company, citing government data, also said that use of smokeless tobacco by minors "is low and decreasing."

Judy Decker, spokeswoman for Lucky Stores Inc., and Sav-On Drug Stores Inc., two of the retailers named as defendants, said company officials had not seen the complaint and could not comment.

According to the lawsuit, more than 70,000 California youngsters under the legal age of 18 use smokeless tobacco products. It says snuff makers led by UST have consciously targeted the young with less harsh, lower-nicotine "starter products," then steered them to more potent brands.

The suit brings together some of the industry's leading antagonists.

In June 1996, San Francisco became the nation's first local government to sue tobacco companies for recovery of smoking-related health-care costs. Its suit, which is pending, was followed by similar actions by Los Angeles County, New York City and others.

Also participating in the case is the San Diego law firm of Milberg, Weiss Bershad, Hynes & Lerach, which sued R.J. Reynolds over its Joe Camel campaign. The suit, which was joined by San Francisco, Los Angeles and other local governments, was settled for $10 million last fall.

In the smokeless case, Milberg Weiss represents San Francisco's co-plaintiff, the Environmental Law Center of Oakland.

Jim Wheaton, a representative of the group, said it brought the case because "all the attention so far has been on cigarettes. Nobody has paid attention to the enormous growth in use of this product by high-school boys."

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