Of mild cigarettes and stiff penalties

Philip Morris told to pay damages for misleading smokers

Published: Monday 15 April 2002

Tobacco giant Philip Morris has been ordered by a jury to pay $150 million in punitive damages in a suit filed by the estate of Michele Schwarz, who succumbed to lung cancer after smoking cigarettes of its Merit brand. In an unprecedented verdict, the company was found to have falsely projected its low-tar variety of cigarettes as less harmful. The estate was also awarded $168,000 in compensatory damages.

Schwarz had been convinced into thinking that the low-tar version of the cigarette would be safer. This has prompted her to switch over from a regular filtered cigarette to Merit. Her estate's attorney said: "People have been deceived into thinking that a low-tar cigarette is healthier for them."

But the company's lawyer contended that Philip Morris merely advertised the brand as a milder version. It did not claim that the product was healthier. Philip Morris plans to appeal against the order.

Earlier, researchers revealed that the company had kept secret for 40 years the fact that fibres and particles are drawn out of filters and into smokers' lungs. Experts also claimed that though the company was aware way back in 1957 of the potential additional health risk this "fallout" posed, it did not disclose it.

Cigarette filters are designed to trap soot particles and to absorb tar, carcinogens and toxic chemicals. But documents released during legal cases, on being analysed, showed that the filters could deliver cellulose acetate fibres and carbon particles into the lungs of smokers. "Cellulose acetate fibres are known to resist biodegradation," revealed John Pauly of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, New York. He is the lead author of the new study published in Tobacco Control. "These fibres are known to be coated in tumour promoters, carcinogens and a diverse range of toxins," he added. "The toxins are sent on a non-degradable matrix. That is ample cause for concern."

Philip Morris, however, asserted in a disclaimer: "We do not believe that the filters pose any additional health risk to smokers. We do not think the evidence suggests that fibres from the filters will penetrate the lungs."

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