A jury Friday ordered the tobacco industry to pay $590 million for nicotine patches, telephone hot lines, advertising and other programs to help Louisiana smokers kick the habit.
Legal experts believe the verdict marks the first time a jury has found that tobacco companies should pay for such programs. While the verdict is not as large as other recent tobacco awards, some experts say the ruling could be precedent-setting.
“This case is unique and certainly a major precedent that I’m sure the tobacco industry is very concerned about,” said Edward L. Sewda, senior attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. “They’re concerned about other states trying to copy this litigation.”
Tobacco lawyers said they would immediately appeal, and the case could drag on for years in the courts before Big Tobacco spends actually any money on the programs. The next and final phase of the trial will determine how the programs will run, but that portion cannot begin until appeals of Friday’s ruling are complete.
Plaintiff lawyers expected a drawn-out battle during the appeal, but they said the verdict still represented an important victory for smokers.
“For the first time ever in this country, a jury has awarded a comprehensive smoking cessation program, not dollar damages,” lawyer Joseph Bruno said. “Instead the jury approved what is needed to help those addicted to smoking.”
The verdict covers hundreds of thousands of Louisiana residents who smoked before the mid-1990s, when the suit was filed. None of the smokers in the lawsuit can get individual damages.
Lawyers for the smokers in the class-action lawsuit had wanted $1 billion for smoking-cessation programs — an amount tobacco lawyers deemed excessive. They said two to three years of programs, at up to $9 million a year, would give smokers time to get counseling and try various aids to quit smoking.
The lawsuit also had wanted the programs to last up to 25 years, but jurors set them at 10 years.
The verdict came in the second phase of a lengthy trial.
In July, the same jury found that cigarette makers had deceived the public with an addictive product and schemed to market cigarettes to children. It rejected calls for medical monitoring for present and former smokers, but said the industry should provide free smoking-cessation programs.
The current phase was to determine how much the industry should spend on the programs and what those programs should be. The third phase — to determine how the programs will work — will be held without the jury.
The case is one of several lawsuits filed against tobacco companies in recent years. In 1998, the industry tobacco agreed to pay 46 states, including Louisiana, $206 billion over 25 years to settle lawsuits for smoking-related health care claims. That settlement did not preclude individuals from suing tobacco companies.
R.J. Reynolds attorney Phillip A. Wittmann said he would argue in an appeal that the Louisiana case should have been halted before Friday’s ruling.
“This case was certified as a class action to answer one question: Whether cigarettes and nicotine are defective products,” Wittmann said. When jurors found that they were not defective, the case should have stopped there, he said.
Gloria Scott, one of the lead plaintiffs in the case, said she started smoking in 1954, when she was 6 and was given free samples from stores. She was only able to quit when she was diagnosed with lung cancer four years ago.
“It’s fantastic. It’s fabulous. I’m so excited,” she said. “I know that 6-year-olds will never be given cigarettes again, and people won’t have to smoke until they can get lung cancer. They can get treatment. They can quit.”
The jury heard about two months of testimony and deliberated for three days before returning the verdict.