(Updates with start of jury deliberations in sixth paragraph.)
Oct. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Altria Group Inc.’s Philip Morris unit deceived Missouri consumers by marketing Marlboro Lights as safer than regular cigarettes, a lawyer told a St. Louis jury.
“Philip Morris made two promises -- to provide lower tar and nicotine to smokers,” Stephen Swedlow, who represents Missouri smokers suing the company, said today in closing arguments in the state-court trial. “They did not deliver on this.”
In the lawsuit, a class action, or group case, filed in 2000 on behalf of all buyers of Marlboro Lights in Missouri, the smokers claim Philip Morris misrepresented that the brand was lower in tar and nicotine, a violation of state merchandising law. The cigarettes are no safer than others, the consumers said in court papers.
The smokers, who are seeking about $700 million plus punitive damages, don’t claim any personal injuries. The class, which was certified in 2005, includes as many as 400,000 current and former Marlboro Lights smokers. The trial began with opening statements last month.
Swedlow asked the jury to award $696 million. “I know that is a big number, but this comes to about 99 cents a pack,” he said.
The jury of three men and nine women began deliberations this afternoon.
“There was no deception on our part,” Beth Wilkinson, a Philip Morris attorney, said in her closing argument.
‘Did Not Prove’
“Did they prove that Marlboro Lights didn’t deliver less tar and nicotine? Did they prove that Marlboro Lights withheld information?” she asked. “They did not prove their case.”
Philip Morris didn’t tout Marlboro Lights as safer and its packages contain the same warnings as other cigarettes, Wilkinson said. “What other product in the United States has a warning that you’re taking your life in your own hands if you smoke these?”
Missouri smokers sustained no damages, George Lombardi, another Philip Morris attorney, said in his closing today.
“Nobody in this class paid a penny more for Marlboro Lights than Marlboro Reds or any other cigarette,” he told the jury. “In the real world, there was no ascertainable loss.”
The smokers claim that Philip Morris “willfully deceived consumers regarding the nature and effect of Marlboro Lights,” according to the complaint.
Philip Morris owes damages because the company “fraudulently represented” that there was less tar and nicotine in Marlboro Lights, Swedlow, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said today. The smokers didn’t get what they were promised and this made their purchases worth less than what they paid, he said.
Philip Morris convinced the plaintiffs that it was better for their health to smoke Marlboro Lights than other cigarettes, Swedlow said. “They delivered the same tar and nicotine as Marlboro Reds.”
The class covers all purchasers of Marlboro Lights in Missouri from 1995 through 2003. Philip Morris sold $1.9 billion Marlboro Lights to the class members, Swedlow said today.
This is the second lawsuit to go to trial this year in Missouri against the tobacco industry over marketing practices. Missouri hospitals lost a jury verdict in April in their claim that Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Lorillard Tobacco Co. and other cigarette makers manipulated the nicotine content in cigarettes and misrepresented the health effects of smoking.
The hospitals, which were seeking more than $455 million in damages, claimed the industry’s actions boosted spending for unreimbursed and uncompensated tobacco-related health care.
The tobacco companies denied any responsibility for patient-care costs at the hospitals or any financial losses by the hospitals. A state-court jury in St. Louis sided with the cigarette makers.
The case is Larsen v. Philip Morris Cos., 002-00406-02, Circuit Court, City of St. Louis, Missouri.
--Editors: Peter Blumberg, Charles Carter
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