The Litigatable Lightness of Cigarettes


Today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act does not pre-empt a Maine lawsuit that accuses tobacco companies of misleadingly touting "light" cigarettes as safer than regular cigarettes. The 1965 law, which required cigarette manufacturers to put health warnings on their packages, also barred any other "requirement or prohibition based on smoking and health…imposed under State law with respect to the advertising or promotion of any cigarettes." The five-justice majority concluded (PDF) that the Maine Unfair Trade Practices Act, as applied to the marketing of "light" cigarettes, does not amount to such a requirement or prohibition.

As I've said before, the "light" cigarette fraud (assuming it does in fact amount to that) is one in which the federal government has been entangled from the beginning. This case also illustrates a problem created by the labeling law: Both the warnings themselves and the clause that has been read to shield the cigarette manufacturers from liability have encouraged them to be less honest than they otherwise would have been compelled to be.

Damon Root noted the oral arguments in this case a couple of months ago.