Light Cigarettes and Compensation


Yesterday the Illinois Supreme Court overturned a $10.1 billion judgment against Altria in a class action lawsuit that accused the company of misleading smokers by labeling some of its cigarettes "light" or "low tar." Since those designations were specifically authorized by the Federal Trade Commission, the court said, they could not be the basis for damages under the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act, which exempts actions that are expressly permitted by state or federal law. Given that provision, it's amazing the case got as far as it did.

It's true that "light" cigarettes do not offer the health advantages that regulators and the tobacco companies originally hoped, because smokers tend to compensate for lower nicotine by smoking more intensely. But it was the FTC that established the machine-based method for measuring tar and nicotine delivery, and it's the FTC that continues to allow (indeed, require) advertising based on the official yields, even though it has long known about the issue of nicotine compensation. This lawsuit tried to convert a regulatory issue into a tort, in direct violation of a statute that plainly barred such a claim. However you feel about Altria, smoking, or "light" cigarettes, the state Supreme Court's decision is a victory for the rule of law.