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'Light' Cigarette Suit Is OKd in Ohio

An Ohio judge rules that smokers claiming ads deceived them about the safety of 'light' cigarettes may file suit as a group against Philip Morris.

September 26, 2003|From Times Wire Services

An Ohio state judge ruled that Philip Morris USA could be sued by a group of smokers who claim they were deceived by the company's advertising of its "light" cigarettes.

Medina County Common Pleas Judge James Kimbler said the lawsuit filed by Akron lawyer A. Russell Smith on behalf of smokers of Marlboro Lights and Virginia Slims Lights in six of the state's counties could proceed as a class action.

Philip Morris, a subsidiary of Altria Group Inc., said it would appeal the judge's order. The class certification will be reviewed automatically by an appeals court, the company said.

"Regardless of what the court tried to do, the simple fact remains that every claim, indeed every smoker, is different," said William Ohlemeyer, a vice president and associate general counsel for the company.

Smith wanted the lawsuit to include all smokers in Ohio, but the judge's ruling restricts it to smokers in Medina, Ashland, Cuyahoga, Lorain, Summit and Wayne counties.

The lawsuits claim consumer fraud. Smith said Philip Morris falsely represented light cigarettes as healthier.

Tobacco companies say they use the term "light" to describe cigarettes with lower amounts of tar and nicotine and not to depict them as safer cigarettes.

In the only similar lawsuit to go to trial, Philip Morris was told by a judge in Madison County, Ill., in March to pay $10.1 billion for misleading the state's smokers about light cigarettes.

Philip Morris, the largest U.S. cigarette maker, has said it would be forced into bankruptcy if it had to pay such an award, which is on appeal.

Ed Sweda, a senior attorney with Northeastern University's Tobacco Products Liability Project, said the Ohio suit was part of a trend "to hold the companies accountable for their actions."

He added that he hoped the result would be similar to the Illinois judgment.

The Ohio judge, in his ruling Wednesday, set a two-year limit for joining the class, not the 30 years that smokers' lawyers had requested, according to Philip Morris.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs couldn't be reached for comment.

Shares of New York-based Altria fell 38 cents to close at $43.88 on the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday.

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Bloomberg News and Associated Press were used in compiling this report.

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