Altria Owes California ‘Light’ Smokers $544 Million, Court Told

Altria Group Inc. (MO)’s Philip Morris USA unit owes California smokers of its Marlboro Lights cigarettes $544 million in restitution, a lawyer said at the end of a false-advertising trial.

“Philip Morris falsely marketed and promoted low-tar/light cigarettes as less harmful than its full-flavored counterpart,” Mark Robinson said in closing statements yesterday in state court in San Diego. The case was brought on behalf of California “light” cigarette smokers from 1993 to 2001.

In the case, filed in 1997, Philip Morris and other tobacco companies were accused of making misleading statements about the health risks and addictiveness of smoking. Plaintiffs are seeking restitution for money spent on cigarettes.

Philip Morris, based in Richmond, Virginia, is the only remaining defendant. The only claim still at issue is that it made false statements about the cigarettes. Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Prager is hearing the case without a jury.

Robinson said Philip Morris’s medical researchers found that many smokers unconsciously compensated for lower tar and nicotine in Lights by puffing harder and smoked more than those who used regular cigarettes.

“The evidence shows that they attempted to deceive people who were buying Marlboro Lights because these people believed that these cigarettes were healthier when, in fact, they were not,” the lawyer said.

Company’s Arguments

Greg Stone, an attorney for Philip Morris, said in his closing arguments that the advertising claims made by the cigarette maker are accurate. Holding up a pack of Marlboro Lights, he read from the wording on the package.

“That says it all: light, low tar and nicotine,” Stone said. “That statement is true.”

The San Diego court ruled in 2004 that the smokers’ case couldn’t proceed as a class action because some plaintiffs didn’t personally suffer injury or financial loss.

The California Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that even if the plaintiffs didn’t meet that requirement, the group suit shouldn’t be decertified. The court reinstated the class-action case.

The case is In re Tobacco Cases II, JCCP 4042, California Superior Court, San Diego County (San Diego).

To contact the reporter on this story: Bill Callahan in San Diego in state court in San Diego at Callahan@san.rr.com. Edvard Pettersson in Los Angeles at epettersson@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net.

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