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Supreme Court rules smokers can sue over 'light' cigarette claims

The decision will make it easier for local residents to recover damages from national firms, consumer groups say.

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In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said the court should have enforced preemption in the case, and created a clear test for the lower courts. In Justice Thomas' view, the Maine smokers' lawsuit imposed obligations tied to the "effect of smoking upon health," and thus must be preempted.

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"With this suit, [the smokers] seek to require the cigarette manufacturers to provide additional warnings ... or to prohibit them from selling these products with the 'light' or 'low-tar' descriptors," Justice Thomas writes. "This is exactly the type of lawsuit that is pre-empted by the Labeling Act."

Justice Thomas's dissent was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.

The majority decision also holds that regulatory actions taken by the FTC concerning claims about tar and nicotine do not preempt the Maine smokers' suit.

"The [Maine smokers] still must prove that [the tobacco company's] use of 'light' and 'lowered tar' descriptors in fact violated the state deceptive practices statute," Stevens writes. He adds that "neither the Labeling Act's preemption provision nor the FTC's actions in this field prevent a jury from considering that claim."

The case, Altria Group v. Stephanie Good (07-562), is one of two high-profile cases on the Supreme Court's docket this term raising the issue of federal preemption of state laws and regulations. On Nov. 3, the court heard the case of a Vermont musician whose right hand and forearm were amputated because of a physical reaction to an injected anti-nausea drug. That suit charges that drug manufacturer Wyeth violated state law by failing to adequately warn consumers about possible dangerous effects from the injection of one of its drugs. Like Altria, Wyeth is urging the justices to dismiss the state lawsuit as preempted by federal law and regulations.

The Maine tobacco lawsuit is part of a nationwide legal assault being waged against the cigarette industry. In addition to the Maine case, at least 16 lawsuits are pending in 14 other states that raise similar claims about deceptive marketing of "light" cigarettes. In addition, scores of lawsuits are pressing an array of other complaints.

The Justice Department is waging its own battle against the tobacco companies. In 2006, a federal judge ruled that Altria and other tobacco firms violated civil racketeering laws in part by falsely marketing and promoting low-tar and light cigarettes as less harmful than regular cigarettes.

The 2006 verdict in US v. Philip Morris is being appealed. Oral argument in that case was heard on Oct. 14 at the federal appeals court in Washington.