Suit seeks to hold cigarette makers liable for deaths

March 31, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

NEW ORLEANS -- A team of lawyers launched a bid yesterday to hold tobacco companies accountable for the deaths and suffering of millions of smokers, claiming that manufacturers intentionally increase nicotine levels in cigarettes to keep their consumers hooked.

In a landmark class-action lawsuit filed in New Orleans, the attorneys contend that Philip Morris Cos. Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and four other manufacturers secretly spike their products so that addicted smokers will continue to buy them.

"Cigarettes kill," said San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli, a veteran of two previously unsuccessful lawsuits against tobacco companies. "We will prove that the tobacco industry has conspired to catch you, hold you and kill you -- all without a moment of remorse or self-examination."

The lawsuit was filed by lawyers from 26 firms specializing in class actions, many of whom represented victims in the just-settled, $3.75 billion case against makers of silicone gel breast implants.

Attorneys said their decision to take on the tobacco industry was motivated by two factors. In February, ABC News reported that manufacturers artificially enhance the nicotine level of cigarettes so that their profits will rise.

More recently, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David A. Kessler called nicotine "highly addictive" -- a charge denied by tobacco companies -- and suggested the government might regulate it as a drug. Last week, Mr. Kessler told a congressional subcommittee that "accumulating evidence" suggests cigarette producers control nicotine levels in a manner that "creates and sustains an addiction."

Philip Morris executives, who hit ABC with a $10 billion libel lawsuit after the network's broadcast, said yesterday that they do not boost the nicotine content of cigarettes.

"The underlying foundation of this lawsuit -- that we add nicotine to our product -- is simply not true," said Gary Long, an attorney for Philip Morris. Mr. Belli and his fellow lawyers, Mr. Long said, are simply "jumping on the publicity bandwagon to see if there's something there."

R.J.R. Tobacco spokeswoman Maura Ellis rejected the claim that cigarettes are addictive.

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