Defense in Philip Morris trial says smoking danger was known early

By John Sammon | Apr 13, 2019

FORT LAUDERDALE – The defense in a trial accusing cigarette maker Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds of damaging a woman’s lungs through addictive nicotine on Friday built on its case that the dangers of smoking were well known by the public for a long time.

“The 1964 report to the U.S. Surgeon General was a big deal,” said Robert C.L. Vaughan, attorney for Philip Morris.

“Yes,” agreed Dr. Kenneth Cummings, a professor at the Hollings Center Cancer Prevention Institute at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Defense attorneys questioned Cummings, considered an important  witness for plaintiff Karla Zingaro.

The trial in the 17th Judicial Circuit of Florida Court is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.  

Zingaro and her husband Robert are suing Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds for the lung cancer and emphysema suffered by the woman saying the companies are liable for the addictive nature of the cigarettes they sold and should pay compensatory and punitive damages.

Zingaro, 65, started smoking as a teenager and continued smoking up to two packs of cigarettes a day for 40 years. She attempted to quit repeatedly to no avail but finally was able to quit in 2009 after using an E-cigarette, an electronic device that delivers nicotine to the brain without the chemical compounds in a normal cigarette.

Despite quitting, Zingaro developed lung cancer and was treated with radiation and a second time after the cancer recurred. She also suffers from emphysema and greatly reduced breathing function. 

Plaintiff attorneys accuse the cigarette companies of engaging in a decades-long conspiracy starting with a meeting of top tobacco officials at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1954, to coordinate efforts to deceive and defraud the public by denying evidence that cigarette smoking was dangerous to health.

Defense attorneys argued that Zingaro and other plaintiffs knew full well the dangers of smoking for years and decided to smoke anyway when they could have quit as millions of others have, and so bear responsibility for their own health problems.

A central premise of the defense strategy has been to demonstrate that smokers had plenty of warning to know that smoking caused diseases like lung cancer.   

Vaughan recounted how in 1964, in a report requested by the U.S. Surgeon General, scientists found that smoking was dangerous. A headline in the New York Times read, “Cigarettes Peril Health.”    

Vaughan said newspapers all over the country reported on the findings.

Cummings agreed.

“It (report) also found smoking was a cause of chronic bronchitis and a risk of dying from emphysema and heart disease, right?” Vaughan asked.

“True,” Cummings said.

In addition the three television networks NBC, CBS and ABC covered the report findings with news shows.

Vaughan explained and Cummings agreed that at the time (1964), nicotine and cigarettes were still defined as a “habit” and not an “addiction.” In addition to be considered addicting a substance had to result in intoxication. It would not be until 1988 that the U.S. Surgeon General would change the definition saying that cigarette smoking was as addictive as heroin and a substance did not have to be “intoxicating” to be addictive.

In 1965, the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring warning labels on cigarette packages that read “Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health.”

Vaughan cited a news release in which Cummings had stated that 60 million people in the U.S. had quit smoking since the 1964 Surgeon General report came out.

Cummings agreed the warnings and those from public health agencies on television and radio caused a decline in cigarette consumption in the 1960s.

Vaughan displayed the results of a poll that asked people if they thought cigarette smoking could be a cause of lung cancer. In 1954, at the time of the Plaza Hotel meeting, 29 percent of smokers said yes smoking can cause lung cancer. In 1964, 53 percent said yes.

“It went up (yes votes),” Vaughan said. “That was 10 years into the conspiracy (1964).”

“Yes,” Cummings said.

Among all adults questioned, 39 percent said yes in 1954, 62 percent in 1964.  

Vaughan brought up the subject of Hollywood movies and the selling of cigarettes.

When television advertising for cigarettes was withdrawn in the 1970s over health concerns, the cigarette makers sought to promote their products by having them appear in films.

The movie Grease (1978) showed co-star Olivia Newton-John smoking a cigarette, although the particular brand was not divulged.

However in the movie Superman Two (1980) the brand of cigarette was displayed.

“That would be a product placement, right?” Vaughan asked.

“Yes,” Cumming agreed.

“Superman tells Lois Lane she doesn’t have lung cancer from smoking cigarettes,” Vaughan said.

“That was in Superman One (1978),” Cummings corrected.

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