The Most Significant Tobacco Company Lawsuits

The link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer was difficult to prove in the United States for decades. Although litigants attempted to attack the tobacco companies over the years with lawsuits alleging bad faith marketing practices targeting children, African-Americans, and urban youth — as well as on behalf of the countless individuals who died as a result of smoking — it was not until 1998 when the courts finally admitted the causal link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer in what is known as the Master Settlement Agreement.

Before reaching the point where tobacco companies agreed that the link between their product and cancer existed — and was knowledge that they suppressed for years — there were several key lawsuits that shaped the way cigarettes were bought, sold, and marketed. These three cases in particular shaped the relationship between consumers and tobacco products.

State of New York $92 Million Settlement Order 

A federal panel awarded $92 million to the State of New York under the terms of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA). The award relates to the sale of untaxed cigarettes on Native American reservations in 2003. The tobacco companies claimed that untaxed cigarettes sold on reservations were not subject to the terms of the MSA, which brought a share of the $206 billion Big Tobacco agreed to pay to states over 25 years in order to offset Medicaid costs.

Rose Cipollone versus Liggett Group 

Prior to the 1990s and the MSA, a smoker by the name of Rose Cipollone successfully sued tobacco maker Liggett Group over claims that their product were the cause of her cancer. Cipollone further claimed that the tobacco maker was aware of the health risks their product caused, and continued to market cigarettes without labeling those risks. Cipollone, who died in 1983, prevailed in trial court, winning a judgment award of $400,000.

The U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the award through appeal in 1990, although the court provided some opportunity for Cipollone’s estate to challenge the ruling based on the fact that her smoking predated the 1966 Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertisement Act and the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1969. The Supreme Court finally ruled in 1992 that the 1969 Act preempted claims of failure to warn by the tobacco companies.

Discount Tobacco City & Lottery, et al. v. United States, et al. 

The tobacco industry pushed back against restrictions it felt hampered their ability to advertise cigarette products in Discount Tobacco City & Lottery, et al. v. United States, et al., Nos. 10-5234/5235. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth District decided the case on March 19, 2012. The issues related to restrictions on the tobacco industry’s First Amendment rights evolved from passage of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009. The law gave the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate cigarettes and other tobacco products.

The court affirmed a lower court’s decision that the restrictive measures within the Tobacco Control Act at issue did not constitute a violation of the company’s first amendment right to free speech. This includes prohibitions on sponsorships of social, musical, and similar events, the distribution of items with tobacco company logos and limitations on audio ads produced.


Connor Linde is a freelance legal blogger focusing on Personal Injury, Wrongful Death, Business Law, Insurance Claims, Financial Regulation and other areas as well.

Image credit goes to austin_squire.

Categorized as Business

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