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An advertising campaign will begin soon to let Marlboro Lights smokers who bought the cigarettes in Arkansas during a nearly 39-year period know they can apply to join a 12-year-old lawsuit that accuses the manufacturer of deliberately exaggerating the safety of the brand.

The suit has the potential to create Arkansas' largest-ever plaintiffs pool, with possibly more than a million litigants who bought either Marlboro Lights, now known as Marlboro Gold, or Marlboro Ultra Lights, now Marlboro Silver, between November 1971 and June 2010.

Plaintiffs attorney Marcus Bozeman with the Thrash Law Firm said the ads should begin "within a couple of months."

The lawyers say that tobacco company Philip Morris, now the tobacco division of Virginia-based Altria Group Inc., violated the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, deliberately misleading consumers by marketing the cigarettes as "safer, healthier and less addictive than regular cigarettes" when they were not, a fact that Philip Morris knew was not true. In reality, the lawyers say, Marlboro Lights, which featured added nicotine to boost users' addiction, were more cancer-causing and more dangerous than their traditional counterparts.

Company attorneys dispute claims of deliberate deception and wrongdoing, arguing that light cigarettes did what they were advertised to do -- deliver less tar and nicotine -- if they were smoked correctly.

The filters of light cigarettes were specially ventilated to reduce tar and nicotine, but smokers could get more by inhaling deeper or more often, company attorneys said. Smokers who used the cigarettes as they were designed got the promised benefit of reduced tar and nicotine, they said.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox has scheduled a six-week trial to begin in August 2016 and has approved the plaintiffs' plan to notify possible plaintiffs -- everyone who bought a pack of the cigarettes in Arkansas during the time period of 38 years, seven months and 22 days.

The time frame stretches from Nov. 1, 1971, the day the Lights brand was first sold, through June 22, 2010, the day a federal law went into effect barring advertising from describing cigarettes as light or mild.

With trial a little more than a year away, Bozeman said, the lawyers believe the advertising campaign will be able to reach most of the available potential plaintiffs in time for trial through Internet, TV, newspaper, magazine and radio ads nationwide, but primarily in Arkansas.

"Given that this case has been pending since 2003, we're very comfortable that that's enough time," he said.

The lawyers have consulted a nationally known firm that specializes in class-action notices to come up with the advertising plan. A news release about the effort will be issued to 9,900 media outlets across the country, and an ad will run in one national edition of People magazine.

The ads will be designed to notify potential plaintiffs in neutral language about the case and how they can either join the litigation or decline to participate. The ads will include the basic nature of the allegations, the deadlines for applying and the procedures for opting out, according to court documents.

The campaign also calls for an informational website to be established that will disseminate information about the lawsuit, with access to court documents and a toll-free phone number.

The judge granted the lawsuit class-action status in October 2013, which led to an appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court by the cigarette-maker. The status issue was resolved in February when the high court rejected the company's arguments and upheld the class-action certification.

In the event of a successful jury verdict, the monetary award would go into a special fund, and Lights customers would have to submit a sworn statement to be reimbursed from it.

The lawsuit, part of a national trend of suing the cigarette-maker over its Lights advertising, was filed in 2003 but has been delayed while jurisdiction questions raised by the tobacco company have been settled, including the four years it took for the question to be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court returned the lawsuit to the state court in 2007, but the proceedings were delayed another year after the company unsuccessfully sought to have the case transferred to federal court under a different law.

According to the suit, the two plaintiffs, Wayne Miner of Franklin County and James Easley of Miller County, smoked about two packs of Lights a day until learning about the health allegations in early 2000.

Metro on 05/24/2015

Print Headline: Ad push to seek plaintiffs in Marlboro tobacco suit

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