Smokeless-Tobacco Maker Settles Suit

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by Kevin Helliker
Wall Street Journal

December 8, 2010

The nation's largest smokeless tobacco company agreed to settle for $5 million a lawsuit brought by the family of a decades-long user who died of mouth cancer at age 42.

The settlement—which was reached a while ago but recently finalized in court—is highly unusual because experts say that no jury verdict has ever been rendered against the tobacco industry for harm allegedly caused by smokeless tobacco, which users place between their lips and gums.

The lawsuit accused UST Inc. of wrongful death in the 2003 demise of Bobby Hill, a 42-year-old North Carolina man who had started using Skoal and Copenhagen—the company's flagship brands—at age 13.

UST was acquired by Altria Group Inc. last year. An Altria spokesman said that the settlement was reached before Altria's acquisition of UST and that Altria "was honoring the terms." The spokesman added, "We have no intention of settling cases like these in the future."

In a regulatory filing, Altria said other such suits are pending against UST. It isn't clear how many suits are pending.

Plaintiff attorney Antonio Ponvert III said Mr. Hill became addicted in the 1970s, a time when smokeless products carried no health warnings. "The fact that he was addicted as a child took away any personal responsibility defense, and the absence of any label meant they couldn't say, 'We warned you,"' said Mr. Ponvert, a lawyer at Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder in Bridgeport, Conn. Among the evidence that Mr. Ponvert obtained during discovery were about 60 letters from children to UST. He said the letters, written in the 1970s and 1980s, came from authors who identified themselves as child users of smokeless tobacco. In some cases, the children asked the company to keep its prices low so that they could continue affording it.

Mr. Ponvert said the company's letters back to the children often included free cans of smokeless tobacco. "And this was at a time when there was federal and state legislation prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors," Mr. Ponvert said.

Altria wouldn't comment on the letters, the rationale behind UST's decision to settle or any other events preceding Altria's acquisition of UST last year.

Sales of smokeless tobacco have been growing even as sales of cigarettes are flagging. Some public-health officials have argued that smokers should consider switching to smokeless tobacco because it is significantly less lethal than are cigarettes.

Still, most public-health officials oppose any talk of positioning smokeless tobacco as a less-dangerous alternative to cigarettes, in part because that strategy could prompt non-tobacco users to start up a habit or prompt former smokers to start using a smokeless variety rather than avoid tobacco.

While less of a health hazard than cigarettes, the most popular brands of smokeless tobacco are rich with carcinogens that research has shown increase the risk of cancer, particularly of the mouth. That risk can further spike if a person smokes and or drinks alcohol. Evidence also suggests that smokeless tobacco is associated with higher risks of heart disease.

Since the late 1980s, smokeless tobacco has carried a warning label. And since June of this year, smokeless products must rotate through the following warnings: This product can cause mouth cancer; This product can cause gum disease and tooth loss; This product is not a safe alternative to cigarettes; Smokeless tobacco is addictive.

In one case that went to trial back in the 1980s, involving a teenage user of smokeless tobacco who died of mouth cancer, a jury ruled in favor of UST.