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 of Law. …