Tobacco firms face $200bn 'lights' lawsuit

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Big tobacco companies have been delivered a major blow after a court in New York gave permission for a $200bn (£105bn) class action lawsuit to proceed against the manufacturers of "light" cigarettes who marketed them as a less harmful alternative.

Unless overturned on appeal, the decision means that some of the world's largest tobacco companies such as Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds Tobacco and Lorillard Tobacco will have to defend claims that they reaped between $120bn and $200bn in extra sales by marketing the light cigarettes, even though they knew their health risks were the same as normal brands.

"They understood that they were selling death," the smokers' lawyer, Michael Hausfeld, argued last week when requesting the class action status. "[The question was] how to disguise it ... They put on 'lights'." The decision by US District Senior Judge Jack Weinstein means that the class action covers anyone who bought cigarettes labelled as "light" or "lights" after they were introduced in the early 1970s.

Mr Hausfeld told the judge that an analysis by expert witnesses had concluded more than 90 per cent of the smokers in the potential class had bought light cigarettes over the past 30 years based on health concerns as opposed to taste, or other factors.

In his 500-page written ruling, released yesterday, Judge Weinstein wrote that cigarettes were "the basis for a pandemic, causing premature deaths of tens of millions of Americans".He said it was necessary to make the lawsuit a class action because: "No other method of aggregation of tens of millions of smokers' claims is practicable. The small amount of possible recovery for each smoker could not justify the expensive and time-consuming pretrial and trial procedures required." Judge Weinstein set a trial date of 22 January 2007. The stock price of some of the tobacco companies involved fell by as much as 5 per cent following the judge's decision.

Lawyers for the tobacco companies have argued that for a class action to advance, the plaintiffs would have to prove how many smokers relied on the word "light" when deciding whether to buy the cigarettes. They have also argued that 65 brands are mentioned in the case, each one of which would have advertised in a different way.

Several companies said they would appeal against the decision.

The case, first filed in 2004, claims the cigarette makers violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act by misleading US smokers about the merits of "light" cigarettes, which accounted for 85 per cent of sales in 2002, the most recent year for which figures are available.

The lawsuit is one of several that have been brought against the large tobacco companies, which have been fairly successful in defending themselves. In May last year, a appeals court dismissed a class actionseeking punitive damages on behalf of millions of US smokers.

Earlier this year a judge dismissed a different lawsuit by a group trying to force tobacco companies to pay at least $60bn smokers spent on health care.