Industry Charged With Civil Rights Violations in Marketing

Excerpts from Tobacco lawsuit defendants say race not a factor in marketing

By HOPE YEN, Associated Press April 8, 1999

Tobacco companies and trade groups say there is no basis under federal civil rights laws for a class-action lawsuit alleging that the companies intentionally targeted black communities in marketing more-dangerous menthol cigarettes.

The defendants asked U.S. District Court judge John R. Padova on Wednesday to dismiss the lawsuit, which attorneys said is the first anti-tobacco suit filed under civil rights laws and alleges that cigarette makers have violated the rights of blacks by aiming menthol-product advertising at them.

Other suits against tobacco companies around the country are based on personal-injury tort statutes, not civil rights laws.

Attorneys for the prospective plaintiffs argued that the defendants' actions violated the federal Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1870, originally passed to prevent the victimization of former slaves during Reconstruction and typically used in job discrimination, school segregation and police beating cases.

"There has been a comprehensive and aggressive targeting of the African American community for the past 40 years without any warning of the dangers," said Carol Black, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "The targeting exclusively to African Americans is no worse than segregating individuals because of the darker pigmentation of their skin."

Although blacks account for about 10 percent of all U.S. smokers - and smoke one-third fewer cigarettes per day - they are 30 percent more likely to die of smoking-related illnesses than whites, the lawsuit contends.

Meanwhile, black smokers make up 60 to 70 percent of the menthol cigarette consumers, the suit says. Fifty-five percent used one of three menthol-only brands - Newport, Kool, and Salem - according to a 1998 Surgeon General's report on tobacco use among minority groups.

The plaintiffs' attorneys contend that the cigarettes' menthol compounds, when burned, create additional toxic substances and have a cool taste that make them more dangerous than regular cigarettes.

The judge took the motion under advisement, and there was no indication Wednesday when he might issue a decision.

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