Smokers Get Their Day in Court

THE Supreme Court has given new meaning to the term "smoking gun." A lot of plaintiffs' lawyers will be working overtime searching for evidence that cigarettemakers have misled the public on the health risks of smoking.

The high court's decision last week allowing lawsuits against tobacco companies on certain state-law claims strikes a welcome blow against products that, according to public-health officials, kill more than 400,000 Americans a year with lung disease and other ailments.

The ruling still leaves smokers with high legal hurdles. To recover damages for smoking-related injuries to health, plaintiffs will have to persuade juries that cigarette manufacturers actually committed fraud on consumers by lying about the health risks of smoking or by concealing information about those risks. It's not enough for plaintiffs simply to argue that cigarette companies inadequately warned smokers about the risks.

The tobacco companies claim that they're not worried by the Supreme Court's ruling because, they say, they haven't been dishonest about smoking's destructive effects on health. A lot of people suspect differently, though, and the companies likely will have to open their records more than ever before to burrowing lawyers. Also, smoking-disease cases that might have been dismissed now will get to the jury.

The case was a partial victory for tobacco companies. The justices agreed that states cannot impose higher standards on cigarette advertising than those required by the federal government, and that the companies are not liable just because they feature healthy and fun-loving people in their ads.

Nonetheless, after Wednesday's ruling that federal warning-label laws do not "preempt" state-law claims based on deceptive practices, the tobacco companies operate in a far more precarious legal environment than they did before.

More progress needs to be made against smoking - especially by blocking tobacco companies' appalling efforts to target advertising at teenagers and even children. In telling cigarettemakers that they can't deceive people, though, the Supreme Court fired a useful shot across the bow.

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