Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Right vs. 'light'

A lawsuit based on a Maine statute would undermine Congress' ability to set tobacco ad standards.

October 14, 2008

A tobacco company is an unsympathetic defendant in any lawsuit filed by smokers. But the dangers of smoking aren't the issue in a case now before the Supreme Court involving the parent company of Philip Morris USA, the manufacturer of Marlboro Lights and Cambridge Lights. A ruling against the company would be unfair and would undermine Congress' role in protecting public health.

Last week, the high court heard arguments in a case from Maine in which smokers sued Altria Group, the parent firm of Philip Morris, not because they had developed cancer or heart disease but because they were victims of misleading advertising. The cigarettes they purchased are lower in tar and nicotine than other cigarettes, but the plaintiffs argue that they are no less dangerous because smokers compensate by inhaling more deeply or smoking more often. The legal basis of the plaintiffs' suit is Maine's Unfair Trade Practices Act.

That state law may or may not be violated by cigarette packages bearing the labels "light" and "lowered tar and nicotine." But that's not the question before the high court. Rather, former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, representing the tobacco company, told the court that by complying with the federal labeling law, Philip Morris was exempt from state regulation of cigarette packaging.

He's right. The federal labeling 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 cigarette." During oral argument, Justice Stephen G. Breyer suggested that the Maine law didn't offer an alternative rule for advertising about smoking and health; all it did was enforce "the traditional rule that advertising has to tell the truth." That's hairsplitting. If the label "light" was deceptive, it was because it underestimated the health dangers.

Cigarettes are a public health scourge. Opponents of smoking understandably take advantage of any legal port in a storm to deprive tobacco companies of what they regard as ill-gotten gains. But this case involves an important principle: that Congress has the authority to establish national standards, whether the subject is the safety of a medical drug or the adequacy of a cigarette health warning.

Sometimes a political trade-off is involved: Members of Congress from states that want to regulate more harshly in a particular area agree to a less rigorous national standard that will have the advantage of applying to states that don't want to regulate at all. Congress isn't required to adopt such compromises. Indeed, it could leave regulation of cigarette advertising -- and other activities -- completely to the states. But it hasn't done so. If consumers of "light" cigarettes feel cheated, they should petition Congress to strengthen the national warning label. They have no right to relief from the courts.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|