Florida smokers take cigarette makers to trial

MIAMI (AP) — Tobacco companies cannot be held liable for making people sick because anyone who reaches for a cigarette knows full well the risks of smoking, an industry lawyer argued Tuesday at the first class-action lawsuit by smokers ever to go to trial.
“There’s no question that smoking involves risk,” Robert Heim said in opening statements. “But of all the consumer products that have been manufactured and sold in these United States over the course of the last century, none have had risks that have been better understood and better appreciated by consumers than the health risks of smoking. None.”
The nation’s five biggest cigarette companies and three industry trade groups are being sued for $200 billion in a class-action brought on behalf of 500,000 sick Florida smokers.
Heim, who is defending Philip Morris Inc., noted that concerns about smoking were raised by an English king as far back as 1604. Cigarettes were called “coffin nails” in this country about 100 years ago, he said.
In the 1950s and ’60s, hundreds of articles were published in national magazines “that talked about the health risks of smoking, that talked about nicotine, that talked about the fact that it can be hard to quit once you start smoking,” Heim said.
Heim disputed the contention raised Monday by plaintiffs’ attorney Stanley Rosenblatt, who said cigarette makers had perpetrated a huge fraud on the public.
“You can’t defraud somebody by hiding something they already knew,” Heim said. “We will prove to you that the plaintiffs cannot avoid responsibility by saying they cannot quit, because people can quit.”
“Forty-six million people in the last 30 years have quit smoking and they’ve quit smoking for good,” he said.
The only previous class-action against the industry to make it to trial was one by flight attendants who claimed secondhand smoke made them sick. In that case, also handled by Rosenblatt and his wife, Susan, the industry agreed in a $300 million settlement to establish a research foundation.
The tobacco industry has also agreed to pay four states a total of $37 billion to settle lawsuits over the costs of treating sick smokers. Florida was among those states, but nothing in its settlement prevents individuals from suing.
The other defendants are R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Lorillard Tobacco Co. and Liggett Group Inc., as well as Miami’s Dosal Tobacco Corp., the Council for Tobacco Research and the Tobacco Institute.