Big Tobacco launches defense of cigarette research, corporate conduct
WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) -- Tobacco companies accused of making a defective product and ignoring the health of West Virginia smokers plan to call about a dozen witnesses to dispute the benefits of medical monitoring and to show how hard they have worked to de
The first of several medical witnesses is Dr. Phillip Goodman, a radiologist from Duke University in North Carolina set to testify Thursday.
Goodman will try to bolster the tobacco companies' claims that the medical screening program some 250,000 healthy smokers want would have little benefit and could create harm by triggering invasive, unnecessary follow-up tests.
The lawsuit covers people who have smoked the equivalent of a pack a day for at least five years, but who are not yet sick. It is the first class-action medical monitoring case against Big Tobacco to be tried in the United States.
R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard are defending what is essentially a product liability claim with medical monitoring as the proposed remedy for wronged consumers.
Medical monitoring in this case means a lung-function test called spirometry for all symptom-free smokers at age 40, with a second test at age 45 and tests every two years after that.
Starting at age 50, healthy smokers also would get spiral computed tomography scans, which generate three-dimensional images of organs and potentially reveal disease earlier than other tests.
The smokers believe those tests could lead to lifesaving early detection of lung cancer, emphysema and chronic obstructive lung diseases, but the tobacco companies say spiral CTs are experimental and unproven technology.
The medical testimony they will offer is expected to focus on two points: spiral CTs cannot alone diagnose disease; they can only detect growths that must be diagnosed with other procedures not included in the medical monitoring program.
Goodman will also talk about how those follow-up tests, which can range from a more refined scan to a needle biopsy, can expose someone who may not have cancer to an unreasonable risk of injury or death.
"The basic message he's going to give is that we know there is going to be risk in the plaintiffs' program," R.J. Reynolds attorney Jeff Furr said. Goodman believes any potential benefits of screening are unproven, he said.
The tobacco companies also plan to call current and former industry researchers who will explain to jurors the many challenges in designing a safer cigarette.
"They're going to get the full, coherent story of how difficult, prolonged and focused this effort has been," Furr said.
How the cigarette makers responded to evidence that their products cause disease is relevant to the case. Smokers' attorney Scott Segal argues that companies acted with "willful and wanton" disregard for public health and failed to do what a "reasonably prudent" manufacturer should have done.
The jury will judge the tobacco companies' conduct, but Furr argues that conduct is only relevant in terms of research and development.
"The proper role for the companies -- and the areas where the companies have the expertise -- is cigarette design," Furr said. "That's the area where they have insight, and that's where their conduct matters."
The researchers will include a former R.J. Reynolds toxicologist, Donald deBethizy, who now works for a company that uses cigarette industry research for potential, beneficial medical use.
He will testify about how concerted the efforts were to develop new products and how the industry tried to conduct biological testing in spite of a so-called "gentlemen's agreement" in which tobacco companies pledged not to compete with one another on the basis of safety.
The cigarette companies will call an assortment of witnesses who can testify about what smokers knew about the dangers of their habit and how long they've known it.
That's also important for the defense, which argues that cigarettes are inherently risky but not defective and that those risks have long been common knowledge.
The tobacco companies plan to wrap up their case the way it begins, by focusing on the validity of the medical monitoring program itself.
"The defendants aren't saying there's something wrong with medical monitoring in principle," Furr said. "The problem is with the particular program these plaintiffs propose."