Suit wants tobacco firms to fund tests
A class-action lawsuit filed Monday in Portland is trying to force cigarette-makers to pay for tests to detect lung cancer and other tobacco-related diseases in Oregonians who smoke.
The suit was filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court by four Portland law firms on behalf of Oregonians such as Patricia R. Lowe, a longtime smoker from Beaverton.
Lowe, 61, smoked Marlboros for more than 45 years, averaging nearly a pack a day. She said she started smoking in high school, "because I wanted to be cool."
Lowe said she has not had a cigarette since Aug. 13. Previously, she tried to quit about 10 times. She has no symptoms of lung disease.
"The cigarette manufacturers have sold me a product that is addictive and dangerous, simply for the opportunity to take my money," Lowe said. "I, and other smokers in Oregon, have been denied an opportunity to live a long and healthy life."
The Oregon suit does not seek monetary damages directly. It asks the court to require the five biggest tobacco companies to set up a fund to pay for a new diagnostic lung test on smokers every two years, along with quit-smoking programs and public education about the hazards of smoking.
Lowe said she plans to have the test, called a spiral CT scan, even though it is not covered by insurance for smokers without symptoms. It costs between $300 and $400.
"My goal is to get this test for every smoker in Oregon," she said. "It's preventive medicine."
But the cost-effectiveness of lung cancer screening for apparently healthy smokers such as Lowe is not so simple, experts said.
"It holds promise, but that's as far as we can go," said Dr. Alan Barker, a lung specialist at Oregon Health & Science University. "It certainly has not been shown to save lives or prevent lung cancer."
An estimated 400,000 Oregonians smoke. Lowe represents the "class" who have smoked at least five "pack years" -- the equivalent of a pack a day for five years.
A ruling in the case could take a year or two, lawyers said. First, a judge must decide whether it qualifies as a class action. If so, a trial would be scheduled.
Michael York, an attorney who represents Philip Morris Inc., one of the defendants, called the Oregon lawsuit "a virtual carbon copy" of a West Virginia case that was decided last week in favor of the tobacco companies.
Four Portland firms teamed up on Lowe's lawsuit: Gaylord Eyerman & Bradley; Swanson, Thomas & Coon; Bennett Hartman Kaplan & Morris; and Paul & Sugarman. They said the Oregon case differs from the West Virginia case because it emphasizes public education as well as lung screening.
Unlike a chest X-ray, which takes a single picture of the lungs, spiral CT scanners capture from 75 to 200 images, giving doctors a more powerful test for tumors.
Melanie Haymond, manager of EPIC Imaging West in Beaverton, said that while a chest X-ray can recognize a tumor the size of a dime, a CT scan can pick up lung tumors the size of a pencil eraser.
There's still debate, however, about the technology's ability to save lives. Dr. Nicholas Carulli, an internist in Vancouver, Wash., said that although the scans pick up smaller lesions, the cancer already may have spread beyond the lung.
"The jury is still out," Carulli said, on whether the scans can lower the lung cancer death rate.
An expert committee formed by the American College of Radiology is reviewing data on the effectiveness of scans for lung cancer detection. Its report is due this spring.
Lung cancer kills more Americans than any other form of cancer. About 91,000 Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer each year, and only 14 percent of them survive more than five years. Smoking increases the risk of dying from lung cancer by 23 times for men and 13 times for women.
Wendy Y. Lawton of The Oregonian staff contributed to this story. You can reach Don Colburn at 503-294-5124 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.