The United States Supreme Court ruled this past Monday that smokers may sue tobacco companies for fraud in the marketing of “light” cigarettes. In a surprising 5-4 decision considering the conservative, pro-business nature of the Court, the Supreme Court determined that several Maine residents had been deceived by Altria and Philip Morris USA into believing that light cigarettes deliver less tar and nicotine to smokers than regular cigarettes. Although it is true that the light cigarettes do have less tar and nicotine than regular cigarettes, smokers apparently compensate for the difference by taking larger puffs, smoking more cigarettes or inhaling more deeply.
The plaintiffs sued Philip Morris under the Maine Unfair Trade Practices Act, claiming that they had been injured by the deceptive advertising and marketing of cigarettes such as Marlboro Lights. The Supreme Court had to decide whether the plaintiffs had the right to sue at all considering the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, which was enacted in 1965 and required tobacco companies to place warnings on their packaging and advertising. The federal law had prohibited the states from making their own similar laws as to smoking and health based on the United States Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which states that when there are conflicts between federal and state laws, federal laws must prevail. The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, determined that the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act was intended to prevent states from making their own laws about health problems from smoking, not to pre-empt laws such as Maine’s which establish a general responsibility not to deceive consumers.
Naturally, the four judges in the minority, Scalia, Roberts, Alito and Thomas, sided with big business in claiming that that the Maine statute was essentially an attempt to get around the federal statute, and was instituted only to regulate smoking and health, not the deceptive business practices of Philip Morris. In a major victory for plaintiffs around the country, the decision will allow dozens of similar lawsuits to proceed in other states. Hopefully, the case will also start a trend by which ordinary Americans will be successful in holding corporations accountable for their dangerous practices.