LAWYERS seeks return of money that youth smokers spent on cigarettes

Wednesday, May 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A lawsuit led by attorney Johnnie Cochran targets the tobacco industry anew, accusing companies of violating federal racketeering laws to hook children on cigarettes.

Large tobacco companies, including Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson, aggressively targeted youth with ads that concealed the health risks and addictive nature of cigarettes, said a draft of the suit obtained by The Associated Press. That action constitutes fraud, the lawyers said.

The suit, which was to be filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Washington, seeks class-action status for millions of youths who took up cigarettes before their 18th birthdays.

Lawyers seek to recover the money that youth smokers have spent on cigarettes since they began smoking _ whether or not their health has suffered from smoking or whether they have become addicted. It also seeks the creation of an educational fund to campaign against youth smoking both now and in the future.

``Millions of children have been moved while they were minors to purchase and smoke cigarettes and pay defendants for their harmful, addictive, misrepresented products,'' according to the draft copy prepared by the Washington-based law firm of Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll.

The filing of the suit comes a day after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit handed the tobacco industry a victory when it dismissed lawsuits from union health care funds and three foreign governments that had sought compensation for treating sick smokers.

It also comes amid concerns that the Bush administration might drop a 1999 Justice Department racketeering suit against major cigarette makers.

Tobacco firms contend they do not market to children. Such advertising is prohibited under a 1998 settlement agreement between the companies and the state attorneys general who sued them.

A spokesman for Philip Morris declined to comment on the case Cochran plans to bring on behalf of youth smokers because he had not seen a copy of the suit. But he said the company avoided marketing its products to children, even long before the ban.

``Philip Morris has always worked diligently to keep cigarettes out of the hands of underage people,'' spokesman John Sorrell said.

Though federal statistics show teen smoking declined at the end of the 1990s, one out of three high school students say they've smoked at some point. Advocacy groups have warned that underage smoking is the gateway to an adult addiction that kills a half-million people annually. Every day, 3,000 youths start a daily smoking habit, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids says.

Cochran, who has helped launch high-profile discrimination suits, has warned that minority youth, who smoke less than their white peers, are being especially targeted by some ads.

Attorney Michael Hausfeld of Cohen Milstei said in an interview Tuesday that the suit is an extension of the Justice Department's ongoing action against tobacco companies, but focuses on children.

``Minors have been principally ignored in all of the litigation despite the fact they are the primary reason for the attention paid to tobacco,'' he said.

The Justice Department lawsuit, filed in September 1999, seeks to force the industry to hand over profits dating back to the 1950s. In its 2002 budget, the Bush administration requested a fraction of the millions of dollars that Justice lawyers say they need to press the case; White House officials have denied plans to drop the litigation, arguing that Congress could transfer needed funds from other federal departments.

Lawyers acknowledged fears about the future of the Justice Department lawsuit.

``The tobacco companies are guilty as charged and should be made to disgorge the profits they wrongfully received from the sale of cigarettes to kids, among others,'' the lawyers said in a statement.

The young plaintiffs, the lawyers say, ``believe that, even if the Bush administration gives up the federal suit, they can take up the gauntlet.''