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California and the West

Court Hears RJR Tobacco Giveaway Case

October 06, 2005|From Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Six years after R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. was slapped with a $14.8-million fine for holding cigarette giveaways at six California public events, the company continues to fight the constitutionality of a state law prohibiting tobacco freebies.

The maker of Camel, Winston and other brands says it has a right to give tobacco to adults despite the ban state legislators approved amid intense lobbying from the California Medical Assn. At least 16 states and the District of Columbia regulate the distribution of free tobacco.

The company began arguing its case to the California Supreme Court on Wednesday in Redding.

R.J. Reynolds already has lost two court challenges to the 1991 state law, and its penalty for doling out free cigarettes to nearly 15,000 adults at events including a San Jose beer festival and Del Mar motorcycle gatherings in 1999 and 2000 is now $18 million and growing with interest.

The legal debate isn't about free-market capitalism. Instead, R.J. Reynolds says state laws regulating the "promotion" of cigarettes are preempted, or nullified, because of the 1969 congressional Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act. The act says "No requirement or prohibition based on smoking and health shall be imposed under state law with respect to the advertising or promotion of any cigarettes."

Several health groups, including the California Medical Assn. and the American Medical Assn. are urging the justices to uphold the law because "tobacco use is the nation's single most preventable cause of premature death and disease."

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