Plaintiffs: Tobacco companies targeted youth to sell product

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota’s $1.77 billion-plus lawsuit against the tobacco industry went to trial Monday with a promise from the state’s lawyers to prove their case from a cache of 33 million pages of formerly secret company documents.
“The evidence will show this is a renegade industry which has placed profit ahead of the health of its customers,” attorney Michael Ciresi said in his opening statement.
“Marlboro has risen to its No. 1 position on the backs of America’s youth,” he said. Cigarette companies “treated America’s youth as a commodity, as a source of replacement smokers.”
The industry documents will prove that the industry conspired to conceal what it knew about the hazards of smoking as early as the 1950s, Ciresi said.
Minnesota’s is the first of 40 state lawsuits against the cigarette makers to make it as far as opening statements. Texas, Florida and Mississippi settled their cases earlier.
The state and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota are seeking reimbursement for the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses, estimated at $1.77 billion. They also seek punitive damages.
Peter Bleakley, the tobacco companies’ lead attorney, acknowledged that many of the jurors might dislike smoking, and might even believe cigarette sales and advertising should be banned.
“But that is not an issue in this case,” Bleakley told the jurors. “The issue that you have to decide is whether wrongful conduct by the defendants caused the state to incur increased health care costs.”
It has not, he said.
State Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III hasn’t ruled out a settlement of Minnesota’s case but has said any deal must include the release of all internal tobacco documents.
Minnesota had to fight to get the 33 million pages of tobacco industry documents during a discovery process that began three years ago. The bulk are under heavy guard in a Minneapolis warehouse.
The state is still seeking an additional 240,000 or so documents that cigarette makers claim are protected by attorney-client privilege. A special master is reviewing those documents to determine whether they should be turned over.
The state and Blue Cross claim tobacco companies committed fraud by suppressing information on the dangers of smoking and publicly denying that tobacco is a health hazard.
“To this day all of the defendants save one, Liggett, publicly deny that smoking is addictive and causes disease,” Ciresi said.
Defendants in the case are Philip Morris Inc.; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.; Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.; B.A.T. Industries PLC; British-American Tobacco Co. Ltd.; BAT (U.K. & Export) Ltd.; Lorillard Tobacco Co.; The American Tobacco Co., now part of Brown & Williamson; Liggett Group Inc., which is a defendant of Blue Cross only; The Council for Tobacco Research-U.S.A. Inc.; and The Tobacco Institute Inc.