FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
First chewing tobacco settlement on record
BRIDGEPORT, December 7, 2010 - U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company (USSTC), manufacturer of Skoal and Copenhagen chewing tobacco, has agreed to pay $5 million to the family of a man who died of mouth cancer.
"This company manufactures and sells a dangerous and defective product that it knows causes addiction, disease and death in consumers who use it as intended," said Atty. Antonio Ponvert III of the Bridgeport-based law firm Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, who represented the man's family.
The $5 million settlement was reached between the family of Bobby Hill of Canton, North Carolina, and the Altria subsidiary U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company, manufacturer of the industry's most popular brands of chewing tobacco. Altria also owns Philip Morris USA, which has never settled an individual consumer lawsuit.
Ponvert said, "This is the first time the tobacco industry has ever settled a wrongful death case resulting from the use of chewing tobacco. And it's the first time Altria has settled any consumer tobacco case of any kind."
The settlement comes at a time when the tobacco industry is attempting to weaken proposed warning labels on tobacco products, and is marketing spit tobacco as a less harmful alternative to cigarettes.
The product liability lawsuit was originally filed by Hill's wife, Kelly, in 2005, after her husband died of squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue. He was 42 and had been chewing USSTC's spit tobacco products since he was thirteen years old.
According to Ponvert, USSTC knows that most of its consumers start using spit tobacco and become addicted to it before the age of 13, and it intentionally and aggressively markets its products to minors. "We obtained dozens of letters the company knowingly sent to minors, some as young as nine years old, thanking the children for their business and sending them free samples," Ponvert said.
According to Ponvert, the company's "graduation strategy" introduced children to candy-flavored spit tobacco for the express purpose of addicting them to these entry brands and then "graduating" them to the company's stronger, more addictive, more expensive, and more deadly brands.
"The company's intentional strategy was to market spit tobacco to children by selling a sweet candy-flavored product, and by holding promotional events and celebrity appearances designed to appeal to minors," Ponvert said. "They used sports personalities and spokespeople who were hired to attract children and adolescents to spit tobacco use. They dispensed complimentary samples of spit tobacco to minors at every opportunity."
"Despite decades of uncontroverted findings by the U.S. Surgeon General, the World Health Organization, and public and private health organization s around the world, company executives insisted that nicotine isn't addictive and that smokeless tobacco doesn't hurt you," Ponvert said. "In this day and age, that's like arguing the earth is flat. The company had an unconscionable, profit-driven, policy of deceit that resulted in the addiction of tens of thousands of consumers, including very young children."
USSTC, headquartered in Greenwich, Conn., before it was acquired by Altria in 2009, manufactures and sells over 650 million cans of chewing tobacco throughout the United States every year. "This is a company that sells more than 1.7 million cans of chewing tobacco per day to children and adults in the U.S. Every one of these cans is a ticking time bomb," Ponvert added.
"Mr. Hill's surviving wife and children hope that this settlement will serve as a warning to young people that, if they use smokeless tobacco, they will definitely become addicted, and they are more likely to get sick and die," he said.
Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder has offices in Bridgeport, Danbury and New Haven. The nationally known law firm has achieved record-breaking verdicts for people who have suffered serious personal injuries and economic harm from medical malpractice, violation of their civil rights, dangerous products, negligence, drunk drivers, corporate and governmental abuse, and commercial misconduct. www.koskoff.com .