The tobacco company Altria Group is asking the US Supreme Court to short-circuit a class action lawsuit by angry smokers who say they were misled into believing that "low tar" and "light" cigarettes are a healthier alternative to regular cigarettes.
A group of smokers in Maine filed suit against Philip Morris USA and its parent company, Altria, charging that the companies engaged in a decades-long fraud on Maine smokers in violation of state laws against deceptive business practices.
Altria responded to the suit by arguing that its products are regulated by federal law and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), not the State of Maine. A federal judge agreed and dismissed the smokers' suit. But the First US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston reinstated the action, ruling that the state lawsuit is not preempted by federal law.
On Monday, the dispute arrives at the US Supreme Court, where the justices are being asked to decide whether the Maine suit can proceed to trial or must be dismissed because it intrudes into the exclusive realm of a federal regulatory agency, the FTC.
The case, Altria Group v. Stephanie Good, is one of two high- profile cases on the Supreme Court's docket this fall raising the issue of federal preemption of state laws and regulations. On Nov. 3, the court is set to hear the case of a Vermont musician whose right hand and forearm were amputated because of a physical reaction to an injected antinausea drug. That suit charges that drug manufacturer Wyeth violated state law by failing to adequately warn consumers about possible dangerous effects from the injection of one of its drugs. Like Altria, Wyeth is urging the justices to dismiss the state lawsuit as preempted by federal law and regulations.
"For most businesses, federal preemption is the hot-button issue of the term," says Robin Conrad of the US Chamber of Commerce's National Chamber Litigation Center.
"The court finds itself once again in the thick of an explosive national debate over whether, how, and when federal law displaces state law," Ms. Conrad told reporters in a recent briefing.
"For companies trying to compete in a fast-paced global economy, the question comes down to who gets to regulate your business," she said. "Should it be a single set of uniform national rules, or should your business be regulated by 50 attorneys general, thousands of municipalities, and hundreds of disparate jury verdicts?"
In defense of states' watchdog role
Consumer advocates, trial lawyers, and state attorneys general say federal preemption can make it more difficult to protect consumers from unfair or deceptive business practices. State laws designed to protect citizens at the local level should operate in concert with federal regulations and do not create difficult obstacles for national businesses, they say.
"Complying with those state laws means conducting your business in a lawful way and being truthful in communications you have with your customers," says Edward Sweda, a lawyer with the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Boston's Northeastern University School …