Tobacco and Cigarette Litigation: History & Trends

The evolution of lawsuits and legal action against Big Tobacco, and current trends involving the liability of cigarette/e-cigarette manufacturers.

Updated by , J.D. University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated 9/15/2022

Smokers, their families, and government entities have been filing product liability lawsuits and legal actions against tobacco companies and cigarette manufacturers for more than half a century:

  • Tobacco/cigarette litigation has seen a number of evolutions—from the theories of liability used by plaintiffs to the legal defenses mounted by cigarette manufacturers.
  • As of 2022, dozens of states are still receiving payments out of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, which put the nation's largest tobacco manufacturers on the hook for $206 billion.
  • Legal action over Juul and the safety and marketing of e-cigarettes/vaping products looks to be the latest wave of tobacco/cigarette litigation.

The First Lawsuits Against Cigarette Manufacturers

In the 1950s, when reports first emerged linking cigarettes to cancer, plaintiffs began suing cigarette manufacturers. Plaintiffs in these early cases—usually smokers with lung cancer—typically employed several legal theories in their lawsuits:

  • negligent manufacture: the tobacco companies failed to act with reasonable care in making and marketing cigarettes
  • product liability: the tobacco companies made and marketed a product that was unreasonably dangerous or came with inadequate warnings
  • negligent advertising: the tobacco companies failed to warn consumers of the risks of smoking cigarettes
  • fraud, and
  • violation of state consumer protection statutes (most of which prohibit unfair and deceptive business practices).

Tobacco manufacturers responded in full force, fighting each lawsuit and refusing to settle out of court. They relied on several defense strategies, arguing that:

  • Tobacco was not harmful to smokers.
  • Smokers' cancer was caused by other factors.
  • Smokers assumed the risk of cancer when they decided to smoke.

The tobacco companies prevailed in all of these early lawsuits.

Second Wave of Tobacco Litigation: Addiction Introduced

In the 1980s, a new wave of lawsuits emerged. In the landmark case of that time, Cipollone v. Liggett, the plaintiff and her family alleged that cigarette manufacturers knew—but did not warn consumers—that smoking caused lung cancer and that cigarettes were addictive. Although Rose Cipollone's husband was awarded $400,000 in damages, an appellate court reversed the decision. Other plaintiffs also sued, claiming that tobacco companies knew cigarettes were addictive and caused cancer.

In defending these lawsuits, the tobacco companies argued that smokers had knowingly assumed the risks of cancer and other health problems when they began smoking. The companies also argued that various state laws were preempted by federal laws. That is, that federal laws governing tobacco advertising superseded state laws regarding the same thing, and plaintiffs couldn't sue under the state law. For the most part, the tobacco industry was successful in these lawsuits.

Third Wave: Plaintiff Successes and Lawsuits by the States

In the 1990s, plaintiffs began to have limited success in tobacco lawsuits, partly because some cigarette company documents were leaked showing the companies were aware of the addictive nature of tobacco. The first big win for plaintiffs in a tobacco lawsuit occurred in February 2000, when a California jury ordered Philip Morris to pay $51.5 million to a California smoker with inoperable lung cancer.

Around this time, more than 40 states sued the tobacco companies under state consumer protection and antitrust laws. These states argued that cigarettes contributed to health problems that triggered significant costs for public health systems. In these lawsuits, the tobacco companies could not use the defense that had proven so successful in lawsuits brought by individuals—that the smoker was aware of the risks and decided to smoke anyway.

In November 1998, the attorneys general of 46 states and four of the largest tobacco companies agreed to settle the state cases. Terms of the settlement are referred to as the Master Settlement Agreement. Highlights include:

  • Tobacco companies agreed to refrain from engaging in certain advertising practices, particularly ad campaigns that marketed cigarettes towards kids.
  • Tobacco companies agreed to pay annual sums of money to the states to compensate them for health-care costs related to smoking (a minimum of $206 billion over the first twenty-five years).
  • The settlement created and funded the National Public Education Foundation, dedicated to reducing youth smoking and preventing diseases associated with smoking.
  • Tobacco companies dissolved three of the biggest tobacco industry organizations.

Recent Developments in Tobacco Litigation

In recent years, several key court decisions have paved the way for a raft of individual lawsuits against tobacco companies and have opened the door for class action lawsuits that focus on light cigarettes.

Individual Lawsuits in Florida

In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court threw out a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of 700,000 smokers and their families against tobacco companies. In its ruling, the court found that tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and kept smoking health risks concealed, but that the case could not proceed as a class action. Instead, the court ruled that each case must be proven individually.

This ruling paved the way for over 8,000 smokers and their families to bring individual lawsuits against the tobacco companies. By 2015, according to RJ Reynolds regulatory filings, the company faced jury verdicts totaling almost $300 million, although many of those cases are in various stages of appeal.

Light Cigarettes

Another batch of tobacco lawsuits focuses on light cigarettes. Light cigarettes have special filters designed to dilute the smoke inhaled by smokers. Plaintiffs in these cases allege that tobacco companies advertise light cigarettes as being healthier than regular cigarettes, when in fact they are no safer than non-light cigarettes.

Tobacco companies respond that "light" refers to the taste of the cigarettes, not the amount of nicotine ingested, and that consumers should understand what "light" means. They have also raised federal preemption as a defense against state class action lawsuits, arguing that federal legislation regarding cigarette advertising supersedes state laws that prohibit deceptive advertising practices.

In December 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the tobacco companies' preemption arguments in a class action light cigarette lawsuit brought in Maine. In allowing the Maine case to proceed, the Supreme Court ruled that federal legislation does not preempt plaintiffs from suing under certain state unfair business practice laws. This will open the door for similar lawsuits against tobacco companies. The Supreme Court, however, didn't rule on any of the underlying claims -- plaintiffs will still have to prove that the cigarette companies violated Maine's consumer protection laws.

A Big Plaintiff's Verdict, Crushed Out On Appeal

In a 2014 wrongful death lawsuit against RJ Reynolds, a Florida jury awarded more than $23 billion in punitive damages to the widow of a former smoker, but in 2015 a Florida appeals court shrank that award way down to just under $17 million.

FDA Sets New Rules for Cigarette Packaging (On Hold)

In March 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that cigarette packaging and advertisements must include a new set of health warnings (accompanied by color imagery).

The new rules require placement of a "textual warning" statement accompanied by a "photo-realistic image depicting the negative health consequences of smoking." Implementation of these new guidelines has been delayed a number of times, after successful legal challenges by cigarette manufacturers, with the current effective date pushed to October 2023.

The Fourth Wave? E-Cigarettes and Vaping Products

In recent years, the popularity of "vaping" and e-cigarette products has exploded, with companies like Juul offering a number of alternatives to traditional cigarettes. While these products don't contain tobacco, they often deliver powerful levels nicotine, sometimes alongside potentially harmful chemicals. Vaping product manufacturers also seem to be marketing directly to young people, which hasn't escaped the attention of the FDA: In 2022 the agency ordered Juul to remove many of its products from the market.

Legal action and lawsuits over the safety and marketing of Juul and other vaping products seem to represent the next wave of cigarette litigation. Learn more about filing a Juul or vaping lawsuit.

Should You Sue a Cigarette Manufacturer?

Any type of tobacco/cigarette litigation involves complex legal theories, detailed and intricate scientific analyses, and often aggressive defendants. If you want to explore whether you or a loved one can bring a claim against a cigarette manufacturer, talk to a lawyer who specializes in product liability cases and who is familiar with the latest trends in tobacco/cigarette litigation.

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