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Tobacco Lawyers Representing Lung Cancer Victims Buoyed By Recent NY Case

Tobacco News Roundup--A NY Lung Cancer Verdict, False Cigarette Ads, and "Light" Cigarettes

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK -- January 16, 2004 -- A jury awarded $20 million in punitive damages to the widow of a long-time smoker who died of lung cancer at the age of 57 (Gladys Frankson v. Brown and Williams Tobacco Corp. et al, Supreme Court of New York, Kings County, Brooklyn, New York). Harry Frankson, the tobacco victim, had smoked unfiltered Lucky Strikes since he was 14 years old. "I've thrown my life away. Over cigarettes. I just couldn't stop," he had reportedly told his wife, Gladys (New York Times, January 6, 2004).

In December, the same jury had also awarded damages of $175,000 to Gladys as compensation for the loss of her husband. It was the first time that a New York jury had held a tobacco company responsible for an individual smoker's death. "They sent a clear message to the entire tobacco industry that conduct which values profits over the lives of consumers will not be tolerated in our society," Edward Sweda, Jr., senior tobacco lawyer for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University School of Law, commented about the two tobacco awards.

Eight million dollars of the $20 million award was against Brown & Williamson, the successor to the American Tobacco Company, which marketed Lucky Strikes. Brown & Williamson is the third-largest cigarette company in the country, with estimated annual revenue of $3.6 billion (New York Times, January 10, 2004).

The Council for Tobacco Research and the Tobacco Institute were each liable for $6 million, for a total of $12 million. Sponsored by the tobacco industry, the Council for Tobacco Research had provided grants for researching tobacco and health issues. Its aim was to identify factors other than tobacco that were involved in causing diseases linked to smoking. The Tobacco Institute was the tobacco manufacturers' public relations arm. Both the Council for Tobacco Research and the Tobacco Institute were disbanded in 1998 as part of a settlement between 46 states and the major tobacco companies.

Brown & Williamson and the tobacco industry groups unsuccessfully argued that Mr. Frankson understood the dangers of smoking, and had the ability to quit the habit. They also claimed that they did not conspire to conceal the serious health effects of smoking. The jurors clearly did not buy this line of reasoning. They decided on the $20 million punitive award as a compromise, with two jurors wanting to limit damages somewhat while others pressed for a much higher amount in order to severely punish the defendants (Juror's report to New York Times, January 10, 2004).

50th Anniversary of Deceptive Tobacco Industry Ad

The Frankson case comes on the 50th anniversary of an industry advertisement downplaying the hazards of smoking. Published in the New York Times and over 400 other newspapers in January, 1954, the industry ad was sponsored by Brown & Williamson's predecessor, the American Tobacco Company; other major tobacco companies; and the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, the predecessor to both the Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research. This telling document explains that "there is no proof that cigarette smoking is one of the causes of lung cancer," and states that "the products we make are not injurious to health."

The advertisements were taken out several years after studies published in the Journal of American Medical Association and the British Medical Journal linked smoking with lung cancer. Of particular note was the early work of Sir Richard Doll, now a 91-year old epidemiologist still widely revered in the health field. He was largely responsible for showing how tobacco use causes lung cancer, heart problems, and other diseases.

See Document Reveals Tobacco Industry Lies for more information about deceptive cigarette company practices over the years, including the 1960s when Harry Frankson began his smoking career. Also see Gene Borio's Tobacco Timeline for a fascinating look at the history of the tobacco industry.

New Study Finds "Light" or "Low-tar" Cigarettes Still Harmful

About the time when Harry Frankson puffed his first Lucky Strikes, tobacco companies began marketing "light" or "low-tar" cigarettes. They claimed that these low-tar alternatives had less nicotine and were healthier for the smoker. Over the last 50 years, the popularity of low-tar cigarettes has increased so that they now comprise about 87% of cigarette sales in the United States, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

A recent report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that tobacco company claims about low-tar cigarettes are false (BMJ 2004 Jan 10; 328(7431): 72). The researchers studied 364,239 men and 576,535 women over 29 years of age enrolled in a cancer prevention study from 1982 to 1988, making adjustments for age, education, and intake of fruits and vegetables. The participants were divided into categories--never smoked, former smokers, and currently smoking specific cigarette brands. Cigarettes were rated as follows: very low-tar filter (less than 8 mg tar/cigarette); low-tar filter (8-14 mg), medium tar conventional filter (15-21 mg), and high tar non-filter (at least 22 mg).

The risk of lung cancer was no different in people who smoked medium tar conventional cigarettes, low-tar cigarettes, or very low-tar cigarettes. Those who smoked non-filtered cigarettes with tar ratings of at least 22 mg did have higher risks of lung cancer. All smokers, regardless of the tar level of their brand, had substantially greater risks of lung cancer than those people who had never smoked or who had quit smoking.

The tar and nicotine numbers used in the study were based on the smoking machine ratings that the Federal Trade Commission provides on cigarette packages and labels. Although a smoking machine or robot smokes each type of cigarette exactly the same way, a human being does not necessarily mimic this behavior. An addicted smoker who switches from a higher to lower tar cigarette can maintain nicotine intake by smoking more cigarettes, increasing the amount of a puff, or increasing the time during which the smoke is retained in the lungs, the researchers pointed out. Smokers can also block ventilation holes, which are very small openings in the sides of cigarette filters that allow air to dilute the smoke in each puff. They may cover up these ventilation holes by mistake or on purpose.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology study is in line with an earlier study by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) that concluded that when smokers switch to low-tar, light, or ultra-light cigarettes, they change the way they smoke to compensate for the lower nicotine yield (NCI Smoking and Tobacco Control, 2001: 13-37; Monograph No 13, Risks Associated with Smoking Cigarettes with Low Machine-Measured Yields of Tar and Nicotine.) Other NCI conclusions are that:

  • Changes in cigarette design and manufacturing over the last 50 years have not been a public health benefit.
  • Tobacco companies may influence smoking machine data by decreasing the number of puffs that the machine takes per cigarette under testing conditions. This is done by increasing the paper wrap covering the outside of the filter, thus allowing the cigarette butt to burn longer. This decreases the machine reading, but the tobacco is still available to a human smoker (National Cancer Institute, Questions and Answers for Monograph 13).
  • The Federal Trade Commission smoking machine measurements of tar and nicotine do not offer smokers useful information on the actual amount of tar and nicotine they will receive from a cigarette.

Many smokers choose light cigarettes because they think that such cigarettes are safer or less addictive. However, "...there is no such thing as a safe cigarette" according to the NCI report. "The only proven way to reduce the disease risks associated with smoking is to quit."

Smoking Remains a Serious Public Health Issue

Whether we are talking about light cigarettes or the full-fledged models, we know that smoking kills. Nearly one in every five deaths in the United States is smoking-related, and tobacco use results in annual medical costs of more than $75 billion (Tobacco Information and Prevention Source, Centers for Disease Control). Lung cancer accounts for about 124,813 deaths per year in the United States (Targeting Tobacco Use, Centers for Disease Control). It is the leading cause of cancer death, and more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.

If you are still smoking, now is the time to quit. For guidence to help you stop smoking, see our section on the health benefits of smoking cessation, nicotine addiction and side effects, and the dangers of tobacco use.

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