Cigarette Makers Open Defense in Lawsuit
MIAMI (Reuters) - U.S. cigarette makers on Monday opened a defense against massive lawsuit claims with an historian testifying that sick smokers had been awash in anti-smoking warnings for decades and knew well the health risks of tobacco.
With hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, Philip Morris lawyer Dan Webb brought historian Thomas DiBacco, professor emeritus at American University, to the witness stand in the penalty phase of a class-action suit that last year yielded a sweeping liability judgement against cigarette makers.
The same six-person jury which found cigarette makers liable for the illnesses of smokers in Florida has been hearing testimony since November to fix compensatory damages for three of those plaintiffs.
The jury may also assess possibly $200 billion or more in punitive damages for a half million or more other plaintiffs claiming cigarette makers hid the risks of smoking and were responsible for lung cancer, heart disease and other ailments they suffer. Defense testimony was expected to last for two to three weeks, lawyers said.
Newspapers, magazines and classrooms were filled with anti-cigarette messages during the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when the three plaintiffs representing the class were smokers, DiBacco said.
DiBacco said a review of Detroit Free Press, the hometown newspaper of plaintiff and throat-cancer victim Frank Amodeo from 1950 to 1963, showed more than 556 articles touched on the cancer, heart and other health risks of smoking.
``Smoking Causes Ulcers And Other Ills, Doctors Say,'' ''U.S. Finds Smokers Death Rates High,'' and ``Ask Halt in Cigarette Smoking,'' were typical headlines during the 1950s, when Amodeo took up cigarettes at age 14, DiBacco said.
The newspaper also published stories about celebrities such as entertainer Arthur Godfrey and television journalist Edward Murrow suffering smoking-related diseases, DiBacco said. Medical advice columns, love-lorn columns and gossip columns also suggested the dangers of smoking in that era, he said.
``I conclude that Mr. Amodeo was exposed or may have been exposed to a substantial amount of information on the health risks of using cigarettes,'' DiBacco said.
Handling a half-foot high pile of clippings from the Detroit newspaper and using blowup images of the articles, DiBacco said he found only 13 pieces, or 2.3 percent of the total, showing tobacco industry organizations or representatives downplaying the health risks of smoking.
In decades of fighting liability suits brought by sick smokers, U.S. cigarette makers have argued that each smoker was responsible for using tobacco.
But, in the first phase of the Miami trial to decide common liability, charges of fraud and whether or not cigarettes caused specific diseases, the tobacco industry was barred from using the defense.