Whether Philip Morris was federally authorized and thus immune from liability for deceptively advertising and selling its “light” cigarettes.
This class action lawsuit was brought by lead plaintiff Sharon Price, who started smoking in 1966 and switched to Cambridge Lights in 1986. Plaintiffs presented evidence that "light" or "low tar and nicotine" cigarettes promoted at that time were no safer than regular cigarettes and, in fact, could be more harmful -- and that the defendant tobacco company was aware of this.
The trial court found Philip Morris liable for fraudulently advertising “light” cigarettes as safer than full-flavored cigarettes and entered a judgment of approximately $10 billion against the tobacco company for its advertising and sale of Marlboro Lights and Cambridge Lights. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed the trial court judgment, holding that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) specifically authorized all U.S. tobacco companies to use words like “low” or “light,” so long as they also clearly disclosed the tar and nicotine content in milligrams of the smoke produced by the advertised cigarette. The court also found that the FTC reiterated this authorization in its consent orders. The Illinois Supreme Court held that Philip Morris was authorized by the FTC to use the terms, and the claim was not barred by the Consumer Fraud Act. Plaintiffs appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
In October 2006, the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium and ten other national public health organizations filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court, supporting Plaintiffs’ petition for writ of certiorari and arguing that the Illinois Supreme Court misapplied and misconstrued federal law. We argued that when the FTC decided in a consent order not to forbid certain conduct, it did not constitute authorization to engage in that conduct, nor did it bind or immunize non-parties. We also argued that the Illinois Supreme Court decision threatened to hamper state efforts to curb deceptive advertising and threatened substantial interference with the FTC’s own regulatory efforts.
On November 27, 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the petition to hear the case. Thus, the Illinois Supreme Court decision in favor of Philip Morris stands.