West Palm Beach, FL—The cigarette addiction that led to a Florida woman’s death was fueled by ads targeting women and smokers looking for a “healthier” choice, a lawyer for the woman’s family said Wednesday, as a rare Florida trial outside the Engle progeny line of lawsuits opened against Philip Morris. Gentile v. Philip Morris, 2015CA005405.
“You take a look at these advertisements, then you take a look at Brenda [Gentile], you’re going to see who they were targeting, what women they were targeting,” Kelley/Uustal’s Eric Rosen told jurors as he compared models in ads for Philip Morris’ Virginia Slims with photos of Gentile. “She fed right into it.”
Gentile began smoking at 15 or 16 and continued to smoke a pack or more a day for more than 30 years, often favoring Virginia Slims or two other Philip Morris brands, Merit and Parliament. She quit smoking only after being diagnosed with lung cancer, but died from the disease, at 56, in 2014.
Her family contends that Philip Morris’ manufacture of cigarettes it knew were addictive and deadly, and furthered by a conspiracy to hide those dangers from the public, killed Gentile.
During his opening statement, Rosen detailed what he described as a campaign to cast doubt on smoking’s dangers through much of the 20th century. Rosen told jurors part of Philip Morris’ role in the campaign included falsely marketing “low-tar” and “light” cigarettes, such as its Merit and Parliament brands, to smokers looking for a “healthier” cigarette because they could not quit completely. “When you have an addicted smoker who is having trouble quitting, they go to these products,” he said. “Because they’re having so much trouble.”
Rosen said women played a key role in Philip Morris’ strategy to grow its business, with the company’s iconic Virginia Slims cigarettes focusing on smokers like Gentile. “Brenda always smoked, really from the 80s going forward... some form of a very feminine, long, light or ultra-light cigarette,” Rosen said.
The Gentile case against Philip Morris is a rare Florida tobacco lawsuit that is not among the thousands of Engle progeny suits against the nation’s cigarette companies. Unlike in Engle progeny lawsuits, where the issue of negligence has already been decided and class membership is the primary issue, in the Gentile case, jurors will determine Philip Morris’ liability as to negligence. Additionally, jurors in this case will decide whether the tobacco company lied about the health risks of cigarettes, a conclusion reached against the company in the Engle v. Liggett Group Inc. trial, from which the Engle progeny lawsuits stem.
Engle progeny suits make up the bulk of tobacco cases coming before Florida judges. However, the Gentile family cannot claim membership in the Engle class because Gentile's cancer developed long after the cutoff date for Engle membership.
On Wednesday, the defense countered plaintiff's claims by contending Gentile smoked by choice, and in spite of knowing the dangers of cigarettes.
During her opening statement, Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer’s Keri Arnold, representing Philip Morris, told jurors Gentile had been warned since she was a child that smoking was dangerous, and she noted that every pack of cigarettes Gentile smoked came with a warning. “Those warnings were present regardless of the brand, or the type, or the design feature of the particular cigarettes that Mrs. Gentile was smoking,” Arnold said.
Arnold acknowledged Gentile claimed to have tried to quit several times before her lung cancer diagnosis, but the attorney questioned whether Gentile was truly motivated to stop, telling jurors, for example, that Gentile smoked while using a nicotine patch. “Mrs. Gentile never went without smoking for more than about 24 hours before the diagnosis of lung cancer,” Arnold said.
Arnold added that plaintiffs would provide no evidence that tobacco marketing drove Gentile’s smoking decisions. “Philip Morris did not cause Mrs. Gentile to start smoking or to continue smoking for 40 years before her diagnosis,” Arnold said.
Trial is expected to last through next week.
Email Arlin Crisco at [email protected] .
Plaintiffs are represented by Kelley/Uustal’s Eric Rosen, Kimberly Wald, and Josiah Graham.
The defense is represented by Arnold & Porter's Keri Arnold and Shook Hardy & Bacon’s Frank Cruz-Alvarez.
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