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Florida jury finds tobacco companies guilty of fraud

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.319.7203.143 (Published 17 July 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:143
  1. Fred Charatan
  1. Florida

    A six member jury in Miami has found that the seven largest American tobacco companies were guilty of fraud, misrepresentation, and conspiracy to conceal the addictiveness and dangers of cigarette smoking.

    The jury also found that smoking cigarettes caused 19 diseases, including coronary heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and cancers of the lung, oropharynx, larynx, oesophagus, stomach, bladder, kidney, and cervix.

    The jury, comprising three smokers and three non-smokers, held the tobacco companies liable for compensatory and punitive damages that could run into billions of dollars to settle hundreds of thousands of potential claims by current and former smokers and their heirs in Florida alone.

    By some accounts, phase one of the trial has amounted to the largest civil case in the annals of the American legal system. The same jury will preside over the second phase of the trial, which will decide on money damages for individual class members named in the complaint as representatives of the class action.

    The lead plaintiff is Dr Howard Engle, a Miami Beach paediatrician, who started smoking in medical school to mask the smell of cadavers. He tried to quit more than 100 times with the help of nicotine patches, hypnosis, and acupuncture. His longest success lasted two weeks. He has emphysema and asthma.

    The jury's decision after a week's deliberation ended the first phase of the massive, year long, class action trial. The lawsuit was begun in 1994 by a husband and wife team of lawyers, Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt.

    It is separate from an earlier settlement of $246bn (£153bn) by tobacco producers to resolve lawsuits brought by state attorneys general seeking to recover healthcare costs spent treating smoking related illnesses under Medicare and Medicaid.

    The Rosenblatts scored a major victory last year when the tobacco producers agreed to pay $300m to settle a lawsuit brought by them on behalf of 60000 flight attendants who had claimed injury from secondhand smoke.

    “It's a devastating blow for them,” said Edward Sweda, senior lawyer at the Tobacco Resource Center, a non-profit organisation near Boston that supports litigation against the tobacco companies.

    Mark Gottlieb, editor of Tobacco on Trial, wrote: “This trial's potential result would have a more immediate impact on the tobacco industry and could result in a steep price increase and subsequent reduction in tobacco consumption.”


    Embedded Image

    Attorney Stanley Rosenblatt uses a cigarette to demonstrate a point in the Miami courthouse

    (Credit: TONY GUTIERREZ/AP PHOTO)

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