Northeastern University Distinguished Professor of Law and President of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, Richard Daynard, published an op-ed in The Hill on December 6, 2022 laying out the importance of punitive damages in civil justice to protect public health.
The article references a billion dollar punitive damages verdict in a Massachusetts tobacco case from September in which PHAI’s Center for Public Health Litigation participated. The case involved a a wrongful death claim by the family of a woman who smoked Marlboro and Parliament cigarettes for many years and who was addicted to cigarette smoking as a teen. Barbara Fontaine died as a result of lung cancer at the age of 60.
The jury listened to 3 weeks of evidence of the culpability of Philip Morris, USA in Ms. Fontaine’s death including testimony from a historian, an addiction expert, and a lung cancer expert. Compensatory damages of $8 million were awarded by the Middlesex County, Massachusetts jury. The jury also learned about the enormous profits that Philip Morris USA derives from cigarette sales to this day and, in order to punish and deter its reprehensible conduct, issued a punitive damages verdict of $1 billion.
Daynard argues that such large punitive damages awards are needed where a corporation is so profitable in an enterprise that harms population health that a smaller award is simply as cost of doing business.
The Center for Public Health Litigation at PHAI returns to the courtroom for a wrongful death tobacco trial in Boston against Philip Morris as well as R.J. Reynolds Tobacco in January.
Professor Daynard’s opinion piece can be accessed through this link.
When Reynolds American International (RAI) President and CEO Susan M. Cameron told the company’s 2016 annual shareholders meeting that it is “always a pleasure to report good news,” this shareholder was reminded of a similar message: “Alive with Pleasure.” That ubiquitous advertising slogan for Newport cigarettes – which RAI acquired
Cameron with a “digital vapor cigarette”
in 2015 when it purchased Lorillard Tobacco Company – emphasized the short-term, pleasurable qualities of the deadliest consumer product while ignoring the long-term consequences of using that product.
Ms. Cameron listed the examples of “good news” from 2015: shareholder return of 49%; an increase of 7.5% in dividends; a 2 for 1 stock split. Integration with the Newport brand has “done well,” she said. Vuse, RAI’s leading brand of “digital vapor cigarettes”, was the most successful new product in convenience stores.
There was no mention of the enormity of cigarettes’ 2015 death toll during the course of the 80-minute shareholders meeting. Nor was there any mention of litigation against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. until Agenda Item #10, the Question & Answer session. My question to RAI Chairman of the Board Thomas C. Wajnert was as follows:
“Just within the past two months, the following developments have occurred:
“On March 17, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in the Soffer case that the widow of a smoker who died of lung cancer can seek punitive damages against RJR on strict liability and negligence claims.
“On March 24, the Florida Supreme Court in the Ciccone case ruled that a smoker did not need an official diagnosis before the cutoff date for membership in the original Engle class.
“On April 21 and 22, a Florida jury returned verdicts in the Turner case totaling $13 million for the children of a heavy smoker who died of lung cancer, finding that RJR hid the dangers of cigarettes from her until she was hopelessly addicted.
“And just last week, on April 25, the Connecticut Supreme Court in the Izzarelli case ruled that the “good tobacco” language of the Restatement 2nd of Torts does not shield tobacco companies from product liability lawsuits.(see news coverage) This is similar to a ruling in Massachusetts.
“Why shouldn’t RAI shareholders and investors be very concerned about these negative litigation developments for the company?”
For a response, Mr. Wajnert turned to Mark Holton, RAI’s executive vice president, and general counsel. While acknowledging the litigation developments I had just cited, Mr. Holton advised that shareholders and investors should consider the company’s overal
Edward L. Sweda, Jr.
l litigation strategy, that has been used for many years, rather than a string of setbacks that had occurred since mid-March. He also mentioned that there had been some recent defense verdicts during that time span and, as to the Izzarelli case, he noted that RJR still had other legal grounds for its appeal of the jury’s $28 million verdict. On that case, Mr. Holton congratulated me on the ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court and noted that I had submitted anamicus curiae brief for the Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI) on behalf of Ms. Izzarelli.
The day before the RAI Annual Shareholders Meeting, the Associated Press reported that several growers who sell tobacco to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. had children under the age of 13 working in their fields, despite RAI’s pledge to prohibit the hiring of children of that age. A news release by the Farmworkers Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) commented that the “presence of child labor, which the company has denied for years, confirms what the farmworkers’ union, FLOC, has been telling the company since 2007: the tobacco industry is guilty of turning a blind eye to child labor, dangerous working conditions, and many other abuses for far too long.” That news was consistent with the findings of a December 2015 report by Human Rights Watch, entitled, “Teens of the Tobacco Fields: Child Labor in Unites States Tobacco Farming.”
During the question & answer session, several speakers raised the issue of working conditions for farm workers. Hillary Laslo, a FLOC member from Toledo, OH, spoke of abusive conditions on the farm and the fear of retaliation. Julie Taylor, the ex-Director of the National Farm Worker Ministry, visited farm labor camps and saw “terrible housing” conditions. A 20-year-old FLOC member described many problems working in the fields, including not getting necessary breaks while working in the fields, especially on brutally hot days.
Fred Romero, a 14-year-old high school freshman who had worked in the fields for the last 2 to 3 years, described how he had gotten ripped off, being paid even less than the $7.25 per hour minimum wage. He noted how his mother struggles hard to pay the family’s bills; he asked Mr. Wajnert whether RAI will sign an agreement to get a livable wage paid for those who work on farms that provide the tobacco for RAI. Mr. Wajnert answered that the company would not do so.
After the meeting concluded at 10:20 A.M., more than 100 FLOC supported demonstrated in the rain against RAI for its refusal to do more to improve working conditions for farm workers and to end child labor in tobacco fields.
Just a week after the meeting, RAI suffered yet another courtroom loss when a Florida jury in the Dion case returned a $12 million verdict to the widower of a woman who died of lung cancer after smoking for decades.
In March, the non-profit Public Health Advocacy Institute (“PHAI”) announced that it had formed a center to bring important public health litigation, and had hired a former Assistant Attorney General to oversee this litigation in the Massachusetts courts. Today, PHAI, which is based at Northeastern University, announced the filing of its latest suit, and also the formation of a strategic alliance with a group of prominent Boston lawyers to pursue important public health cases, including cases against the tobacco industry on behalf of the families of former smokers who have suffered devastating disease from cigarettes.
“We are so pleased to be working with this outstanding group of lawyers to help some of tobacco’s victims in Massachusetts,” said Andrew Rainer, PHAI’s Litigation Director and Director of the Center for Public Health Litigation. Working together with PHAI will be:
PHAI’s latest suit, filed today in Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn together with Perkins and Brody, Hardoon, Perkins & Kesten, LLC, is brought on behalf of Linda Troupe and her husband Carleton against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Donelan’s Supermarkets, Inc. of Littleton, Massachusetts. Mrs. Troupe, who smoked Winston and Kool cigarettes for over 35 years, was diagnosed in 2013 with throat cancer. The suit alleges that, in order to treat Mrs. Troupe’s cancer, doctors had to remove her larynx, and she has lost most of her ability to speak with her four children and eleven grandchildren.
Arrowood, Peters, DeWick and Leifer will be working with PHAI on two cases previously filed in the Middlesex Court — the first brought for the family of James Flavin, Jr., a former executive of Filene’s and Staples, who died of lung cancer in 2012 after smoking Newport cigarettes for over 40 years, and the second brought for Patricia Greene, a Newton realtor, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013, even though she had stopped smoking Marlboro cigarettes 25 years earlier.
Arrowood is the current President of the Boston Bar Association, and a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. Perkins is a founding partner of Brody, Hardoon, Perkins & Kesten, and a previous Lawyer of the Year. Leifer, a former partner of Thornton & Naumes (now the Thornton firm), represented the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in its successful litigation against the tobacco industry to recover the health care costs incurred by the state in caring for residents harmed by smoking. Boyle and Yarashus are past Presidents of the Massachusetts Bar Association. Boyle also served as President of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (now the American Association for Justice), and is a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers.
Like clockwork, the 2015 Reynolds American (RAI) Annual Shareholders Meeting started precisely at 9:00 A.M. on Thursday May 7, 2015 at the company’s headquarters in Winston-Salem, North
Carolina. Seventy-five minutes later, the meeting was adjourned.
Before I could attend the meeting, I had to proceed through intense security, with machines provided by Security Detection, empty my pockets and hand over my camera to the RAI staff.
The meeting was held again in the company’s main auditorium that seats around 200 people. On the dais were the following representatives of RAI management: Thomas C. Wajnert, the Non-Executive Chairman of the Board, who ran the meeting; Dara Folan, Senior Vice President, Deputy General Counsel and Secretary; Mark Holton, Executive Vice President and General Counsel; Andrew Gilchrist, the Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President; and Susan M. Cameron, RAI’s President and Chief Executive Officer. After announcing the rules of conduct for the meeting and potential penalty for violation of the rules, Mr. Wajnert turned to Ms. Cameron for an overview of the company’s business performance for 2014. Curiously, Ms. Cameron began by noting that 2014, while being a “good year” for RAI, “seems a long time ago.” She cited some specifics of RAI’s 2014 performance, including Camel’s high market share and VUSE’s “successful national expansion.” She described RAI’s plans to acquire Lorillard Tobacco Company as the “Right Decision at the Right Time” that is still awaiting regulatory approval by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. She also called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to adopt different regulations for e-cigarettes than for combustible cigarettes. Ms. Cameron made no mention of any of the company’s customers who died during 2014 from smoking-caused diseases.
Much of the remainder of the meeting dealt with farm labor issues. Many members of FLOC (the Farm Labor Organizing Committee of the AFL-CIO) were in the audience; they dominated the 30-minute question-and-answer session. While Mr. Wajnert admitted that “bad conditions exist” on tobacco farms in North Carolina, he claimed that “we are working with our growers” to try to remedy those conditions. FLOC representatives cited ongoing violations of child labor laws in the tobacco fields and emphasized that many of the farm workers were doing extremely hard and dangerous work for a minimum wage salary of $7.25 per hour. Another major grievance was the fact that RAI, despite its claims of transparency, continues to refuse to provide FLOC with a list of tobacco growers with which RAI has contracts to provide it the tobacco for its cigarettes.
During the question-and-answer session, I asked the following question on ongoing tobacco litigation.
“During last month’s RAI First Quarter Earnings Conference Call, Chief Financial Officer and Executive VP Andrew Gilchrist said that ‘a significant portion of our legal budget at this point is being spent on Engle.’ The Engle verdicts in Florida keep on coming. Just last week, a Florida jury returned a verdict of over $6 million for a plaintiff. Meanwhile the Boston Globe last month reported on an upsurge in tobacco product liability lawsuits being filed in Massachusetts – an upsurge that was spurred on by a recent state supreme court ruling that is favorable to plaintiffs.
“I have a two-part question. Would you clarify that when Mr. Gilchrist or other executives refer to the company’s legal budget, that it includes not just salaries of company lawyers and payments to local counsel but also the payment of judgments in cases where plaintiff verdicts have survived all appeals?
“Secondly, instead of using broad adjectives like ‘significant,’ would you give shareholders the specific dollar amount of the company’s legal budget and a breakdown by category of cases?”
In response, Mr. Holton said that the amount paid in judgments is not included in the “legal budget” category. He also said that the company provides overall amounts for the legal budget, though not broken down by category of cases, to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Two shareholder resolutions were defeated. The first, supported by the North Carolina AFL-CIO, called on RAI’s Board of Directors to prepare a report “on the steps the Company has taken to reduce the risk of acute nicotine poisoning (‘Green Tobacco Sickness’) for farmworkers in the Company’s supply chain for tobacco. The report should include a quantitative summary of the results of the Company’s inspections of its suppliers.” The supporters of the resolution noted that children “who are under age 18 work as tobacco farmworkers in the United States and are exposed to Green Tobacco Sickness as an occupational risk. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report described symptoms of Green Tobacco Sickness in nearly three-quarters of 141 child tobacco workers, ages 7 to 17, who were interviewed and worked in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia in 2012 or 2013.”
The second resolution, which dealt with issue of forced labor in tobacco fields, was sponsored by the Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Specifically, the proposal noted that, “with U.S. immigration reform stymied, undocumented workers (often the main workforce in many agricultural areas) can be exploited. In their country of origin they often must pay contract labor brokers thousands of dollars to cross our borders; once here, they often are under the control of other labor contractors in order to work on U.S. farms. This practice results in forms of forced and compulsory labor on many, if not most, U.S. farms, including tobacco farms.”
The proposal called on RAI’s Board of Directors to “create a policy that all its suppliers throughout its tobacco procurement supply chain verify (with independent monitoring) their commitment and compliance regarding non-employment, directly or indirectly, of laborers who have had to pay to cross the U.S. border to work or, once here, to work on U.S. farms.”
Father Michael Crosby presented the proposal and noted that currently RAI is financially benefitting from forced labor. That is a fundamental moral issue that must be addressed, he added.
In seconding this resolution, I noted that RAI’s opposition statement that the issue of forced labor is “an issue that should be addressed in a comprehensive manner as part of immigration reforms and policies at the national level” was technically true but amounted to an excuse to pass the buck since there is no likelihood that the current Congress will allow a comprehensive immigration reform bill to be voted upon, given the track record of the House majority in the last Congress.
So, in this regard as in so many other aspects of Reynolds American’s business, the status quo continues.
As I entered the Reynolds American Corporate Offices (photo) at 401 North Main Street in Winston-Salem, North Carolina just after 8 A.M. on Thursday, May 8, the company’s “Welcome Shareholders” sign was perched directly above the building’s main entrance. Having cleared through the metal detector, I proceeded to the registration table, where I received my admission ticket to the 2014 Annual Shareholders Meeting of Reynolds American, Inc. (RAI).
Since the doors to the meeting room would not be opened until 8:30, I had a few minutes to observe my surroundings inside RAI headquarters.
Banners touting Camel, Pall Mall, American Spirit, Grizzly Long Cut, and ZONNIC (the company’s nicotine gum).
Another banner with the alliterative slogan “Transforming Tobacco,”
One more banner, entitled “Living Our Core Values,” with four adjectives: principled, creative, dynamic and passionate.”
As I proceeded toward the men’s room, I encountered RAI’s cafeteria, which is named the “Golden Leaf Cafe” and contains black plastic chairs. The back of each of those chairs has a cutout in the shape of a camel. Prominently positioned in the lobby was a large portrait of Richard Joshua Reynolds (whose statue can be found a few blocks south on Main Street — see photo), the company’s founder.
I entered the meeting room just after 8:30 and sat in an aisle seat near one of two microphones. After having been personally greeted by several RAI employees, I got a chance to read a two-sided blue handout entitled “Rules of the Annual Meeting.” The closing part of the tenth of the twelve rules caught my attention: “Failure to observe the rules is cause for expulsion from the meeting. Shareholders and their representatives who refuse to leave the meeting upon request could be arrested and charged with criminal trespassing.” I remembered my experience at the 2013 RAI Annual Shareholders Meeting.
The 2014 meeting started precisely at 9:00 A.M. and featured the return of Susan Cameron as CEO. Tom Wajnert, the Non-Executive Chairman of the Board, began by citing his desire for a “productive and orderly meeting” and his opposition to disruptions under the “guise of points of information.” He then turned to Tom Adams, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, for a report on business. Mr. Adams noted that 2014 marks the tenth anniversary of RAI and that the company had made “much progress since 2004.” Key phrases from his report included: “leading the transformation of the tobacco industry”; “Stronger than ever”; “shareholder return of 27%”; “record profits”; “brand milestones”; and “highest market share for Camel since 1967.” Mr. Adams made no mention of any developments in tobacco litigation over the past decade (see, e.g., https://www.phaionline.org/2010/02/19/all-parties-seek-supreme-court-review-of-racketeering-trial-us-v-philip-morris/ and https://www.phaionline.org/2012/03/26/supreme-court-rejects-key-tobacco-industry-appeal-leaving-massive-liability-with-no-end-in-sight/ ). The premature deaths of millions of the company’s customers and bystanders to the use of the company’s tobacco products were once again excluded from RAI’s business presentation.
The Question and Answer session’s allotted time was increased slightly from the 25 minutes at the 2013 meeting to 30 minutes. As it turned out, Mr. Wajnert twice extended the period for shareholders’ questions and everyone who had lined up at the microphones had the opportunity to ask a question. The Q&A session lasted 45 minutes, from 9:40 to 10:25.
In response, Mr. Wajnert turned to Martin L. “Mark” Holton III, Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Assistant Secretary. Mr. Holton chose not to address whether RAI had ever informed shareholders of the Law Finance Group’s decision. Instead, he declared that he and the company are “comfortable” with RAI’s litigation position, including at the appellate level, with regard to these cases in Florida. [Just a month later, the U.S. Supreme Court gave RAI another major setback when it refused to consider the company’s appeal of several plaintiff verdicts in the Engle Progeny litigation in Florida.
Dr. Sharon Brown, who had been ejected from the 2013 RAI Annual Shareholders Meeting, noted that RAI had resumed cigarette advertising in certain magazines, including Glamour, and expressed additional concern that a Spanish-language version of the company’s “Right Decisions, Right Now” program could help introduce Spanish-speaking youth to RAI’s tobacco products.
Many of the questions dealt with farm labor issues, especially the working conditions of workers who toil for companies that supply tobacco to RAI. Mr. Wajnert refused to answer a direct question as to whether he believed a farm worker’s minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is a fair wage. Many supporters of the Farm Labor Organizing Council, AFL-CIO (FLOC) (see http://www.floc.com/wordpress/ ) attended the meeting while others demonstrated outside company headquarters. (photo courtesy of Dr. Sharon Brown).
Two shareholder resolutions were defeated. The first, calling for more transparent reporting to shareholders of the company’s lobbying expenditures, received 47.7 million “Yes” votes compared to 393.9 million “No’ votes. The second resolution, calling for an end to virtually all animal testing, received 3.3 million “Yes” votes and 433.8 million “No” votes.
For seven years, cigarette companies have repeatedly claimed that the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Engle v. Liggett, which relieved about 8,000 Florida cases of the need to prove general liability or that cigarette smoking causes disease, violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They repeatedly represented to industry analysts and shareholders that these key procedural advantages, which have helped plaintiffs in the trials held to date obtain verdicts against the cigarette manufacturers in two out of every three cases, ultimately would be wiped out as unconstitutional.
The original ruling was based on the long-established notion of res judicata, meaning that the matter had already been judged. The issues that the defendants wanted to re-litigate were already determined in a year-long class action trial in 1999.
Twice now, the cigarette companies have failed to get these important procedural advantages overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and it appear that, for all intents and purposes, the industry’s uphill legal battle has just become considerably steeper in Florida.
Last November, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review an appeal of another Engle progeny case, Clay v. RJ Reynolds Tobacco, which raised similar Due Process issues.
Today, about seven months after the Florida Supreme Court issued a decision upholding its 2006 Engle ruling in Philip Morris v. Douglas, the industry was again rebuffed by the nation’s highest court and may have exhausted ways of arguing that its Constitutional rights to due process have been denied in Florida.
Mark Gottlieb, Director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston noted that, “the cigarette companies have two choices left in Florida: either spend the next century continuing to lose around 65-70% of its cases or working to fairly settle them and bring some closure to those 8,000 or so victims who have been waiting more than 15 years for their day in court.”
Public Health Advocacy Institute’s Senior Attorney, Ed Sweda, said,”the tobacco companies’ long-repeated claim that the procedure for trying Engle Progeny cases violates their Due Process rights is now legally dead. The rights of the victims of these companies have been vindicated.”
On February 21, 2011, Lorillard Tobacco Company and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company filed a complaint against the FDA in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia challenging the composition of the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee (“TPSAC”) and alleging that TPSAC failed to comply with the Federal Advisory Committee Act (“FACA”). TPSAC was formed immediately following the passage of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (“Tobacco Act”). TPSAC was charged with researching the health effects of menthol in cigarettes and reported to the FDA that mentholated cigarettes adversely affected public health, and that their removal from the market would benefit public health.
In their complaint, the tobacco companies allege that three members of TPSAC have financial and appearance conflicts of interest stemming from their continued service as paid expert witnesses in anti-tobacco litigation, as well as their continued employment for pharmaceutical companies that manufacture smoking-cessation products. The tobacco companies argue that this creates an unbalanced committee representing only one set of viewpoints that are against smokeless tobacco products and menthol in cigarettes.
Lorillard and R.J. Reynolds alleged injuries include disclosure of confidential information to conflicted committee members who could use it to testify for parties adverse to them, that the conflicted members have the ability to shape the TPSAC report to help with their work as expert witnesses, that Lorillard lost 2 billion in shareholder value, and that their procedural right to fair decision making was violated. The companies are seeking declaratory relief that the three committee members violated FACA, as well as an injunction preventing the FDA from receiving or considering any suggestions from TPSAC pending the result of this litigation.
On April 29, 2011, the FDA moved to dismiss the suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. The FDA argued that the tobacco companies lacked standing to challenge the committee’s composition because their alleged injuries were speculative, not traceable to the FDA, and were unlikely to be redressed by the court. Furthermore, the FDA argued that any conflicts of interest are within FDA discretion and are not subject to judicial review.
On August 1, 2012, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied the FDA’s motion in its entirety. The court held that Lorillard and R.J. Reynolds pled sufficient injuries and that the conflicts of interest are justiciable by the court. Due to the limited number of viewpoints regarding tobacco issues and the scientific, rather than political, nature of the issues, the court determined they are equipped with sufficient standards against which it can assess the committee’s objectiveness. With the denial of the FDA’s motion to dismiss, the tobacco companies are able to proceed with their suit.
On July 21, 2014, Judge Richard Leon granted Lorillard’s Motion for Summary Judgment to bar the Committee’s menthol report from consideration and orders the agency to reconstitute the Committee. The judge found that the, “the Committee’s findings and recommendations, including reports such as the Menthol Report, are, at a minimum, suspect, and, at worst, untrustworthy.” The FDA has not yet announced whether it would appeal the ruling.
The FDA appealed Judge Leon’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit which reversed the District Court’s ruling in a January 16, 2016 decision.  The Court considered the plaintiff/appellee’s three alleged injuries and found none of them to be imminent enough to confer standing. It, therefore, vacated the District Court’s judgment for lack of standing and dissolved Judge Leon’s injunction preventing the agency from utilizing the Menthol Report issued by the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee.
2012 Summary by Katelyn Blaney, updated by Mark Gottlieb in 2016.
In August, 2009, tobacco manufacturers and sellers brought suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky against the FDA, challenging provisions of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (“Tobacco Act”). In a case previously known as Commonwealth Brands, Inc v. United States, plaintiffs challenged the following requirements as violations of their First Amendment free speech protections, and sought a preliminary injunction barring the FDA from enforcing them, as well as a judgment declaring the provisions unconstitutional:
Graphic Warning Requirement: Tobacco manufacturers must reserve a portion of tobacco packaging for health warnings and graphic images
Restrictions on commercial marketing of “modified risk” tobacco products
Ban of statements that express or imply tobacco products are safer due to FDA regulation
Ban the distribution of free samples of tobacco products, brand-name tobacco sponsorship of anything non-tobacco related, brand-name merchandising of non-tobacco products, and distribution of free items in consideration of a tobacco purchase (“continuity programs”)
Tobacco advertisements can only consist of black text on a white background
In Commonwealth Brands, the District Court granted partial summary judgment in favor of the tobacco industry, holding both the color restrictions on their advertisements and the ban on safer product claims due to FDA regulation to be unconstitutional violations of the First Amendment. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the United States for every other challenged provision holding them to be constitutional. Both parties appealed this judgment to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
On March 29, 2012 a three-judge panel for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld every contested provision of the Tobacco Act as constitutional, except for the restriction on the colors used in tobacco advertisements and the ban on continuity programs.
Graphic Warning Requirement: In a 2-1 decision, the Court of Appeals held the graphic warning requirement to be constitutional. Arriving at this decision, the court distinguished between the Zaudererand Central Hudson standards of review for infringements on commercial speech, asserting that the former is reserved for disclosure requirements and the latter for prohibitions on speech. The court viewed the graphic warnings as disclosures of factual information about the health risks of tobacco and, as such, evaluated them against Zauderer. The Zauderer standard permits disclosure requirements as an infringement on commercial speech if they are reasonably related to the government’s interest in preventing consumer deception. The court held that the graphic warning requirement was reasonably related to the FDA’s interest in preventing consumers from being mislead about the health risks of tobacco. The court noted the tobacco industry’s history of deceiving consumers about the health risks and addictiveness of tobacco, as well as the ineffectiveness of the current warnings on cigarette packaging, to hold that the graphic warnings are reasonably related to preventing consumer deception.
The Court viewed the remaining provisions of the Act as prohibitions on speech and measured them against the Central Hudson standard. In order for restrictions on commercial speech to pass Central Hudson and be deemed permissible under the First Amendment, the government must assert a substantial interest in limiting the speech and the means by which they limit it must be narrowly tailored, meaning the government must use the least restrictive methods to further their interest.
Restrictions on marketing “modified risk” tobacco products and the ban on implying tobacco product safety due to FDA regulation: Similar to the graphic warning requirement, the Court of Appeals found the government’s interest in preventing the tobacco industry from making fraudulent claims about the health effects of cigarettes to be substantial enough to satisfy the first prong of Central Hudson. Under the Tobacco Act, in order for tobacco companies to market a product as “modified risk,” the FDA must first determine that the product will actually reduce the harm and risk of tobacco-related disease, taking into account first and second-hand smoke. The court found the pre-approval of “modified risk” health claims to be sufficiently narrowly tailored to further the government’s interest in preventing consumer deception. The Court of Appeals also held that the prohibition of claims that a tobacco product is safer, or less harmful, due to FDA regulation is narrowly tailored to prevent consumer deception. The Appellate Court, reversing the District Court on this count, saw this as a narrow infringement on the tobacco industry’s commercial speech that would otherwise mislead consumers into thinking the FDA endorses cigarettes and tobacco related products.
Ban on free samples of tobacco products and the ban on brand-name sponsorship and merchandising for non-tobacco related products: For these provisions of the Tobacco Act, the Court of Appeals found the government’s interest in curbing juvenile tobacco use to be substantial enough to limit the commercial speech of the tobacco industry. The FDA produced considerable evidence showing that these specific marketing techniques reached an overwhelming number of juveniles. Based on this evidence, the Court found the ban on free samples of tobacco products, as well as the ban on any brand-name tobacco sponsorship of anything non-tobacco related, to be narrowly tailored to prevent juvenile tobacco use.
Color restrictions in tobacco advertisements and the ban on continuity programs: Although the court decided that the government’s interest in protecting consumer deception was substantial, the court held that color restrictions of tobacco advertisements were too overbroad to further that interest. The court stated that the government could have chosen less restrictive means to limit deceptive advertising, such as prohibiting specific images or phrases, rather than limiting them to black text on a white background.
Furthermore, the court held that the tobacco industry’s continuity programs, in which companies offer benefits to existing customers, did not narrowly fit the government’s substantial interest of limiting juvenile tobacco use. The Appellate Court, reversing the District Court, relied on evidence which showed that most existing tobacco users are adults, thus, limiting the continuity programs would not have a material effect on curbing juvenile tobacco use.
After the ruling in this case the tobacco industry petitioned for a Writ of Certiorari asking the Supreme Court to review the ruling (American Snuff Co v. United States). The Plaintiff’s Writ of Certiorari was denied on April 22, 2013.
Summary by Katelyn Blaney
 Discount Tobacco City & Lottery, Inc., Lorillard Tobacco Company, National Tobacco Company, L.P., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Commonwealth Brands, Inc., & American Snuff Company, LLC.
As the hour of 9:00 A.M. approached on May 9, 2013, the date of Reynolds American, Inc.’s (RAI) Annual Shareholders Meeting in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the atmosphere seemed more contentious than in previous years. In addition to the tight security that included the wanding of shareholders for anything metallic in their possession, the removal of suit jackets and the emptying of all pockets, Reynolds American management had arranged for the presence of four uniformed Winston-Salem police officers inside the meeting room. That contingent of police supplemented several officers stationed outside the Reynolds American building at 401 North Main Street.
Running the meeting was the Chairman of RAI’s Board of Directors, Tom Wajnert, who pleasantly wished the audience a good morning and commented on the beautiful, sunny weather outside. Mr. Wajnert’s pleasant demeanor lasted less than a minute when, after addressing “points of information” by two shareholders who asked about the tardiness of the company’s response to written questions submitted at the 2012 Annual Shareholders Meeting, he declared that a third shareholder who began to raise a point of information was engaging in “silliness’ and was “out of order.”
After Mr. Wajnert proclaimed from the podium that he would “not tolerate disruptive behavior,” he turned the forum over to RAI President and Chief Executive Officer Daan Delen, who provided a report on the company’s activities in 2012. Delen trumpeted his company’s increasing endeavors in the field of tobacco harm reduction and boasted about RAI’s “innovation,” noting that Camel snus has 80% of the snus market. Delen also touted Zonnic, a nicotine gum, and Vuse, a brand of e-cigarettes whose distribution will be expanded in 2013.
–Farm Labor Organizing Committee protesters–
In the presence of many shareholders who are concerned about the deplorable conditions under which migrant farm workers toil in tobacco growing fields, Delen praised the audit of North Carolina farms his company conducted since the 2012 Annual Shareholders Meeting and R.J. Reynolds’ “Good Manufacturing Practices” program, as well as its health and safety training DVDs. [Members of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) demonstrated outside the building throughout the morning.
Finally, Delen, mentioned the increased transparency of the company’s disclosure of its political contributions on its website. This decision had followed the submission by the Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order in Milwaukee and Rev. Michael Crosby, of a proposed shareholder resolution calling on the company to do so. That proposal was withdrawn by the sponsor following RAI’s disclosure.
What Mr. Delen did not give shareholders – for the first time in this author’s lengthy history of attending tobacco company annual shareholders meetings – was any comment about any aspect of tobacco litigation. Delen’s silence on this issue came less than two months after the Florida Supreme Court resoundingly rejected the tobacco industry’s legal argument that the way Engle Progeny trials have been conducted since 2009 violates the industry’s due process rights.
During Senior Vice President Dara Folan’s report on an advisory vote for compensation to board members, a shareholder from the audience attempted to make a point of order. Mr. Wajnert immediately declared that shareholders should “stop playing a stand-up game,” and, without knowing the issue the shareholder was trying to raise, determined that person to be “out of order” and declared that he “won’t tolerate interruptions.”
After a supporter and a seconder of an AFL-CIO-backed shareholder resolution calling for the annual election of board members to replace the current three-year staggered terms made their presentations (the resolution was defeated), the next order of business was the question-and-answer session.
In its agenda distributed to attendees, RAI informed the audience that it had allotted all of 25 minutes to consider questions from shareholders. As soon as the meeting’s Q&A session was declared open, Dr. Sharon Brown, a grandmother and a shareholder from Pennsylvania, who was seated second from the aisle where the company’s sole microphone for audience members was situated, stood up and attempted to get to the microphone. Sitting to her right was a male employee of RAI who neither rose to allow Dr. Brown to get by, nor moved his legs sufficiently to allow her by. This author, who had been seated immediately to Dr. Brown’s left and was intending to follow her to the microphone, instead saw Dr. Brown fall to the floor after she attempted to get by the RAI employee. By the time Dr. Brown was able – without any assistance whatsoever from the RAI employee who was at the microphone or from the RAI employee who had been sitting to her right – to get back onto her feet, approximately fifteen people had formed a line leading to the lone microphone. The RAI employee at the microphone ordered Dr. Brown to go to the end of the line.
After the allotted 25 minutes had expired and with eleven people still standing in line to ask a question, Mr. Wajnert announced that he would take two final questions. After those two final questions had been asked and answered, Dr. Brown went to the microphone and, noting that the day before she had attended the Philip Morris International Annual Shareholders Meeting in New York City, a meeting where more than an hour was allotted for questions, asked that more time be allowed for shareholders’ questions.
Mr. Wajnert emphatically denied that request. When Dr. Brown then noted that she had been tripped while attempting to approach the microphone and that she had been similarly tripped at the company’s 2011 Annual Shareholders Meeting, Mr. Wajnert’s response was to call on security, including the Winston-Salem police officers, to remove her from the meeting room on the grounds that she was “out of order.”
The meeting was adjourned several minutes after the ejection of Dr. Sharon Brown.
Florida smokers and their families who are suing tobacco companies won a resounding victory on March 14, 2013 when the Supreme Court of Florida upheld its landmark 2006 ruling in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., 945 So.2d 1246 (Fla. 2006).
By a vote of 6 to 1, Florida’s highest court ruled in favor of the plaintiff in Philip Morris USA, Inc., et al. v. Douglas, 2013 Fla. LEXIS 440, upholding a $2.5 million award in the death of Charlotte Douglas and explicitly rejecting industry arguments that the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling seven years ago violated the Due Process rights of the companies.
The Engle case originated as a class action and went to trial before a jury; that jury in Phase I of the trial found the defendant companies strictly liable, in that the cigarettes that the defendants manufactured and placed on the market “were defective in many ways including the fact that the cigarettes contained many carcinogens, nitrosamines, and other deleterious compounds such as carbon monoxide.” While the case ultimately was not allowed to proceed as a class action, the Supreme Court of Florida ruled in 2006 that the members of the class could file their own individual cases (so-called “Engle Progeny” cases) and proceed with those cases relying upon the jury’s Phase I findings of liability, including that smoking caused a variety of specific diseases, that nicotine in cigarettes is addictive, that the tobacco defendants placed cigarettes on the market that were defective and unreasonably dangerous and that all of the Engle defendants were negligent.
The tobacco companies have argued that, despite the fact that they vigorously presented a defense to these claims during the original Engle trial, applying the Phase I findings to the Engle Progeny trials violates their due process rights. Even though the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. relied on this argument unsuccessfully in the Martin case a year ago, (see https://www.phaionline.org/2012/03/26/supreme-court-rejects-key-tobacco-industry-appeal-leaving-massive-liability-with-no-end-in-sight/ ), the companies tried again in Douglas. Commenting on the original Engle trial, the six-member majority in Douglas said: “As illustrated by hundreds of witnesses, thousands of documents and exhibits and tens of thousands of pages of testimony, the Engle defendants had notice and the opportunity to defend against all theories of liability for each of the class’s claims in the yearlong Phase I trial.”
That six-member majority also noted that the tobacco defendants “argue that the Phase I findings establish, at most, that some of their cigarette were defective for some unspecified reason and that they engaged in some, unspecified tortious conduct. This, they claim, requires reversal of the verdict for the plaintiff based on strict liability because the Douglas jury was not instructed (and did not find) a causal connection between a specific defect in the defendants’ cigarettes and the injuries alleged. We disagree and decline the defendants’ invitation to revisit our decision in Engle.”
The majority clearly recognized and emphatically rejected the industry’s fundamental argument. “At its core, the defendants’ due process argument is an attack on our decision in Engle to give the Phase I findings res judicata – as opposed to issue preclusion – effect in class members’ individual damages actions. However, res judicata is the proper term, and we decline the defendants’ invitation to rewrite Engle.”
The decision was bad news for the tobacco industry and its friends on Wall Street. Pro-industry analyst David J. Adelman of Morgan Stanley admitted that the ruling “was even more pro-plaintiff than we expected and will make it more difficult for the industry to successfully defend these claims.”
After the decision was released, Philip Morris USA announced that “it plans to seek further review” of the Douglas decision. That means yet another attempt to persuade the Supreme Court of the United States to consider the industry’s appeal that Engle Progeny trials that result in plaintiff verdicts somehow violate the companies’ due process rights. If the Supreme Court of the United States makes the same decision it made a year ago about an almost identical appeal (Martin), the answer to the tobacco companies will be a final “No.”
-Edward L. Sweda, Senior Attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project