Tobacco giant Philip Morris faces $10.1 billion (€9.5bn; £6.4bn) in damages over an “evil” campaign to deceive consumers.

Judge Nicholas Byron ruled in favour of a group of smokers who claimed in an Illinois court that naming a cigarette brand “light” had convinced them it was less harmful, when in fact it was not.

The class-action lawsuit is the first against a tobacco company to have reached court over the phrase “light”. Unusually, the plaintiffs did not claim healthcare costs for smoking-related diseases, but instead asked for repayment of the money they spent on the cigarettes in question.

Although the damages were less than half the original claim, Philip Morris expressed dismay. “Judge Byron has awarded an outrageous amount of money to a group of smokers who claim no injury [and] smoked cigarettes that were always labelled with government health warnings,” fumed vice-president William Ohlemeyer.

However, Byron defended the multibillion-dollar payout, saying it was suitable “because Philip Morris’ motive was evil and the acts showed a reckless disregard for the consumers' rights.”

Continued the judge: “The court finds that the term ‘lights’ not only conveyed a message of reduced harm and safety, but also conveyed to class members that the ‘lights’ cigarette product was lower in tar and nicotine.”

Philip Morris will appeal the decision. The outcome is sure to be followed closely elsewhere in the tobacco industry – R J Reynolds and Brown & Williamson both face similar trials in the coming twelve months.

Data sourced from: BBC Online Business News (UK); additional content by WARC staff