The US Supreme Court on Monday ruled that smokers can sue Altria and other tobacco companies for allegedly deceptive marketing of "light" or "low tar" cigarettes.
The high court said such lawsuits are allowed under federal law in a 5-4 decision that will add weight to massive claims filed by ex-smokers against Altria, whose Philip Morris unit is best known for Marlboro cigarettes, and other big tobacco producers.
The case involved three residents of the northeast state of Maine who puffed on Marlboro Lights and Cambridge Lights for 15 years and had argued they had a right under state law to sue the companies for allegedly deceiving smokers that light cigarettes were healthier.
Altria had countered the lawsuit was pre-empted by federal law and interfered with the regulatory authority of the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
The company argued the FTC had failed to act despite being aware that light cigarettes were no less a health hazard that regular cigarettes.
But the justices upheld an earlier ruling from the First Circuit Court, which had said the main legal issue was not about health hazards, but the duty under Maine law not to deceive consumers who had bought the light cigarettes.
The Supreme Court also rejected another argument by Altria that there was no basis for a lawsuit because the FTC had allegedly encouraged consumers to rely on test results of lower tar and nicotine in choosing a brand.
The court said the FTC never obliged the tobacco industry to disclose tar and nicotine levels from the test and did not approve of the description of those results as "light" or "low tar and nioctine" in advertising.
The high court's ruling does not guarantee that the three Maine residents will prevail in their lawsuit but it does allow the case to proceed in federal court.
If the lawsuit succeeds, Altria and other tobacco manufacturers could find themselves being forced to pay out staggering legal settlements to ex-smokers.