NEW YORK — DID the tobacco companies discover that nicotine was addictive, and should they have warned the public about it?
Those questions lie at the heart of a court suit expected to open soon in which up to 50 law firms from around the United States will charge that the tobacco companies should have issued such a warning. It is a class action suit against all major US tobacco firms, on behalf of all US smokers.
The suit, which will take place in a New Orleans federal court and could take months to decide, took on added drama last week with new information. Two former Philip Morris researchers, Dr. Victor DeNoble and Dr. Paul Mele, revealed in congressional hearings how the tobacco giant snuffed out their research into the addictive nature of nicotine a decade ago. The scientists' findings had been kept secret, and they said they had been threatened with legal action if they revealed anything about their research.
The former Philip Morris scientists will be subpoenaed during the suit, says John Coale, a partner with Coale, Allen & Van Susteren, a Washington law firm that has joined with the other firms. ``The tobacco companies have misrepresented the product as nonaddictive,'' he said.
The law firms have pooled their personnel and money in order to match the enormous spending power of the tobacco companies. No tobacco company has ever had to pay any money in the liability and class-action law suits already brought.
The suit opens this month with lawyers taking depositions from potential witnesses. The case could ultimately be heard by a jury. The lead lawyers for the defense, Shook, Hardy & Bacon, a Kansas City-based firm, had no comment, referring calls to Philip Morris, which did not respond to the Monitor's questions about the law suit.
Lawyers involved in litigation against tobacco firms believe the testimony of the two scientists will encourage other former tobacco company employees into presenting evidence about other research efforts. ``I think there will be further revelations about this,'' says Charles Patrick, a partner in the Charleston law firm of Ness Motley Loadholt Richardson & Poole.
Some legal experts believe the two scientists' testimony has potentially far-reaching legal ramifications, perhaps indicating Philip Morris knew of potential danger to smokers from tobacco, says Matthew Myers, general counsel to the Coalition on Smoking OR Health.
Lawyers suing the tobacco companies compare the litigation to suits about the hazards of asbestos. ``Once the public's perception changed so they realized they were dealing with a dangerous, toxic substance, jurors understood the cases and compensated victims,'' says Mr. Patrick.
In their testimony, the former Philip Morris scientists described how laboratory rats would press a lever about 100 times an hour to receive nicotine. When the nicotine was combined with acetaldehyde, a natural product of burning sugars and other matter in the tobacco leaf, the rats would push the lever 500 times an hour.
Despite this evidence, DeNoble and Mele had not yet concluded by 1983, when their research was ended, that nicotine was addictive. But on the basis of today's scientific evidence, DeNoble compares the addictive power of tobacco to cocaine.
Other research dropped
In addition, the scientists recounted how they had tested a substance that was as addictive as nicotine but did not appear to be as damaging to health. Even though the substance might have been a safer substitute for nicotine, this research was also dropped by Philip Morris. ``This strips the industry bare of their claims on smoking and heart disease,'' says Mr. Myers. ``It is part of a recurring pattern, to close labs and fire people when they get too close to scientific truths,'' says Richard Daynard, chairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project.
Philip Morris released a statement after the congressional hearing, calling them ``shameful.'' Steve Parrish, the company's general counsel, said DeNoble's research in 1983 led the scientist to believe nicotine is not addictive and does not result in physiological dependence.
Philip Morris shut down the research at about the same time that a lawsuit was filed by a New Jersey lawyer, Mark Edell, for the survivors of Rose Cipolone, a long-time smoker who died of lung cancer. Once the Cipolone suit was filed, the Philip Morris legal department became interested in the scientific research. Without any explanation to the scientists, Philip Morris abruptly ended the project. The scientists were ordered to get rid of the rats and lab equipment.
``That was the most glaring thing - the lawyers came in and the next day the place was a warehouse, '' says Mr. Coale.
Edell initially won $400,000 for his clients. However, the Supreme Court sent the case back for a retrial, and last year the family decided to drop the lawsuit.