In its 4-2 ruling, the state high court sent the case back to the Madison Country Court with instructions that it dismiss the lawsuit, the Associated Press reported.
The suit centered on Philip Morris’ marketing of “light” cigarettes. Plaintiffs had argued that the term “light” and the marketing plan used to promote light cigarettes fraudulently suggested that they were healthier than regular cigarettes. In its ruling, the Illinois Supreme Court said that the Federal Trade Commission specifically allows companies to market cigarettes with the terms “light” and “low tar.”
The court said that the FTC’s allowance of the terms cleared the company under the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act, which the plaintiffs had argued the company violated. The court ruled that Philip Morris could not be found guilty under that law even if the terms “light” and “low tar” were found to be misleading, because the act allows marketing methods that are cleared by regulatory bodies such as the FTC.
The Illinois justices emphasized that they were deciding the case based on the wording of the law.
“[W]e share the concerns expressed by plaintiffs … about the devastating health effects of smoking and, in particular, the scourge of smoking among young people,” wrote Justice Rita Garman.
Garman further wrote that the court’s “resolution of the present case is in no way an expression of approval of PMUSA’s alleged conduct. Nevertheless, as justices, our role is to apply the law as it exists, not to decide how the law might be improved.”
Garman asserted that those who wanted to change the conduct of tobacco companies should petition the state legislature, Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Congress.
Philip Morris is owned by the conglomerate Altria Group, whose stock rose in value on news of the ruling.
“Philip Morris USA is gratified by today’s Illinois Supreme Court decision,” the company said in a statement, according to Bloomberg News. “The company will have no further comment on today’s decision.”
General Counsel Charles Blixt of Reynolds American, another conglomerate that owns cigarette makers, said his company would ask Illinois courts to dismiss two similar cases, citing the Philip Morris ruling as precedent, Bloomberg reported.
The plaintiffs did not immediately comment on the ruling. Supporters of the plaintiffs said the case does not absolve tobacco companies of responsibility.
“The American public needs to know that this ruling is based on legal technicalities and in no way exonerates Philip Morris from the primary grievance filed in this case — the consistent deceptive marketing of their ‘light’ or ‘low-tar’ cigarettes as a ‘safe alternative’ for the American public,” American Cancer Society Chief Executive John Seffrin said in an e-mailed statement, according to Bloomberg.
In the original suit, a group of smokers claimed that Philip Morris misled them into believing that “light” cigarettes were healthier than regular cigarettes and hid information that proved light cigarettes were just as harmful as regular cigarettes, and in some cases more harmful because the types of tar and filters used caused smokers to consume more cigarettes.
In 2003 Madison County Judge Nicholas Byron agreed with the plaintiffs and ordered Phillip Morris to pay $10 billion in compensatory and punitive damages, along with interest.
In its case to the Illinois Supreme Court, Philip Morris argued that it had abided by federal guidelines and had never claimed that light cigarettes were less harmful than regular cigarettes. Attorney and former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson argued for Philip Morris.