Publication Date: Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Tobacco companies on the defense

By Renee Batti
Almanac News Editor

At the same time Mary Alexander has taken on the role of the nation's top defender of trial lawyers as president of their professional association, she's managed to put a couple of corporate giants on the defense in a Sacramento courtroom.

In a case that should be decided any time now, Ms. Alexander has taken on R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris in behalf of a 52-year-old man who is dying of lung cancer. Attorney Gary Paul of Santa Monica has teamed up with Ms. Alexander on the case.

The plaintiff, Larry Lucier, is married and has a 7-year-old daughter. The cancer has metastasized to his brain, and Ms. Alexander says he has less than a 2 percent chance of living another five years.

Lawsuits against tobacco companies have been criticized by some as a failure of individuals to take responsibility for their own actions. But Ms. Alexander doesn't buy it, and she uses the case she is fighting to illuminate her argument.

"He has smoked since age 11," she says, noting that in 1961, when her client took his first puff, the U.S. surgeon general had yet to issue a warning about the link between smoking and cancer. That didn't happen until around 1964, she says.

She argues that the tobacco companies were well aware of the addictiveness of nicotine -- they even manipulated the level of nicotine in cigarettes to make them more addictive -- but they "engaged in a campaign of misinformation ... to keep doubt alive." In 1992, she adds, the industry "went before Congress and said that cigarettes are not addictive," creating a "psychological crutch for smokers who were addicted."

Mr. Lucier, she notes, tried to stop smoking numerous times, using everything from patches to hypnosis.

Ms. Alexander says that internal documents show that tobacco companies "were targeting kids 14 and up" because marketing studies show that teenagers develop brand loyalty easily, and would be more likely to continue smoking their brands forever if they were hooked young.

"This kind of despicable behavior -- when juries hear it, they're appalled," she says.

The case was tried in Superior Court, and the two defendants were "in the same courtroom, despite RJR's refusal ... to agree with Philip Morris' recent admission that the industry knew but kept secret that smoking is addictive," according to a press release issued by Ms. Alexander and Mr. Paul.