Cigarette manufacturers violated federal racketeering laws by conspiring to entice children to smoke, charges a suit filed yesterday with the US District Court in Washington, DC.

The suit, led by attorney Johnnie Cochrane and Michael Hausfeld, a lawyer specialising in class actions, charges that five big tobacco companies targeted ads at children, in the process deceiving them about the dangers of smoking.

Named in the suit are the Brown & Williamson unit of British American Tobacco, Loews Corporation’s Lorillard Tobacco, Philip Morris, R J Reynolds Tobacco, and Vector's Liggett Group. The action also cites the Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research, two now-defunct trade groups.

Cochrane and Hausfeld filed their suit against growing doubt that the Bush administration will support the federal government’s racketeering lawsuit against cigarette manufacturers. Says Hausfeld: “This is an extremely serious issue, and we don't want to see the plug get pulled on it.”

But tobacco-industry lawyers savaged the suit, pointing to the advertising restrictions placed by the 1998 state tobacco settlement, and denying that their clients ever marketed their products to children.

According to Hausfeld, his case differs from earlier failed actions, in that it alleges economic harm, rather than claims of disease or addiction. It seeks to recover the money spent on cigarettes by underage smokers; alternatively, the profits that the tobacco companies made from their sales to children.

Ripostes a Philip Morris attorney: “Essential elements of the complaint still involve individual issues,” specifically the extent to which cigarette ads influence individual teenagers.

News source: Wall Street Journal