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Published: Thursday, 12/18/2008

Healthy ruling

DOES Big Tobacco engage in deception when it markets so-called "light" and "low tar" cigarettes?

The U.S. Supreme Court didn't answer that question the other day, but it did give consumers from Maine a surprising go-ahead to make the argument. The unusually consumer-friendly ruling was a setback for tobacco companies before a court that typically has limited state regulation of business in favor of federal power.

A group of Maine residents claimed Philip Morris violated the state's Unfair Trade Practices Act by advertising that light cigarettes delivered far less tar and nicotine than regular brands. The lawsuit claims the manufacturers knew that smokers who switch to light brands typically inhale more deeply, take longer puffs, or compensate in other ways, so there is no health benefit to switching to the light brands.

Altria Group Inc. argued on behalf of its Philip Morris USA subsidiary that the federal cigarette-labeling law forbids states from regulating any aspect of cigarette advertising that involves smoking and health. But the court said the labeling law does not shield the companies from state laws against deceptive practices.

The decision forces tobacco companies to defend dozens of suits filed by smokers across the country.

The sales pitches for light cigarettes are based on creating a false impression that they're "healthier." This ruling gives consumers another chance to hold cigarette manufacturers accountable for their deadly products.

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