For years, the tobacco industry has danced and weaved in legal pirouettes all the while trying to keep on selling their deadly products. They challenged the 1964 Surgeon General's warning about tobacco's cancer-causing tendencies with their own research, fought back thousands of lawsuits and scrambled from one regulatory venue to another as cover.
Well, on Monday, they lost some of that cover and the implications go far beyond Big Tobacco.
In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that tobacco firms that marketed "light" cigarettes as less a health hazard can be sued. The case stemmed from three Maine smokers who sued on economic rather than purely health grounds, claiming that they overpaid for "light" brands based on deceptive marketing that "light" smokes were somehow safer. Big Tobacco responded that it is regulated by the federal government and not states so the suit had no legal merit.
The high court's tight decision goes farther than just smokes. For years, business has played the state versus federal regulatory game to insulate themselves from consumer protection lawsuits in state courts.
Following the Bush Admininistration anti-reg penchant, companies have managed to dodge oversight for such products as motorcycle brakes, railroad cars and car seatbelts.
The new decision is likely to make that strategy a lot harder.
Altrtia, the Richmond-Va.-based parent of cigarette maker Philip Morris, had plenty of friends as it defended itself in the "light" tobacco case, including the U.S. Chamber of Commece. But then, so, too, did the plaintiffs, including no fewer than 45 states and various consumer groups.
Meanwhile, Philip Morris is pressing on by experimenting with tobacco delivery systems that the firm hopes will make its products "safer." It also is trying to promote smokeles "chews."
I've been covering tobacco ever since I was a cub reporter for a tiny Eastern North Carolina daily in the early 1970s. The plain truth is that there's no "safe" cigarette. Every step of the way, processing tobacco has one goal -- to enhance addictive nicotine. It goes right down to the priming and suckering phases of bright tobacco leaves during humid Southern summers. There have been plenty of attempts to somehow lessen the health impacts of various carcinogens and pollutants.
But there's no getting around the nicotine issue and this time the outcome will effect a lot more of the business community than just the Evil Weed.