In a win for consumers over business interests, the justices decided 5-4 that federal regulation of cigarette labels does not shield manufacturers from state claims of deceptive advertising. The decision lets a lawsuit by Maine smokers of Marlboro Lights and Cambridge Lights proceed against Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris.
An estimated 43 million adults in the U.S. smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Numerous similar fraud lawsuits are pending.
"We will now have an opportunity to prove at trial that the tobacco companies have been deceptive," said the Washington lawyer who represented the Maine smokers. "Our people thought they were buying a safe cigarette, but they weren't."
Murray Garnick of Philip Morris said the company "will assert many strong defenses used successfully in the past to defend against this very type of case."
Monday's ruling comes three weeks after the Federal Trade Commission rescinded guidelines about tar and nicotine levels that let the tobacco industry pitch cigarettes as "light" and possibly less dangerous to health. The Justice Department, siding with the smokers, cited studies in its brief showing smokers of "lights" compensated by taking deeper puffs, holding smoke in their lungs longer.
The case, closely followed by health advocates and manufacturers, tested the relationship between federal and state law. Usually, when federal and state laws regulate the same conduct, federal law trumps state actions.
After Maine smokers sued, claiming Altria knew its cigarettes were not delivering less nicotine, Altria said the suit was barred by the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act. That law bans states from any "requirement or prohibition based on smoking and health" in cigarette ads. Lower courts disagreed on whether the law eclipsed the state grounds in "light" cigarette cases.
Justice John Paul Stevens emphasized for the majority Monday that federal law blocks only state rules related to smoking and health. The Maine law, he wrote, "is a general rule that creates a duty not to deceive." He noted the government does not endorse use of "light" and "low tar" descriptions.
He was joined by the more liberal justices (David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer) and swing voter Anthony Kennedy.
For the dissenters, Justice Clarence Thomas said the majority misinterpreted past court rulings on competing federal and state rules. He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.
Mark J. Caruso, attorney
Licensed in New Mexico and California