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4 Utahns file suits in state court against makers of cigarettes

Four Utah residents have filed suit in state court, accusing cigarette manufacturers of selling a defective product and conspiring to conceal the addictive power of nicotine.

A trio of Salt Lake law firms filed the lawsuit Friday in 3rd District Court on behalf of four individuals. They are asking the judge to give the lawsuit class action status, which means it would include the claims of all nicotine-dependent Utahns and the families of those who have died.It could affect hundreds of thousands of Utahns, making it Utah's largest consumer fraud case.

The lawsuit contends tobacco giants elevated the level of nicotine in cigarettes, which helped to create addictions so strong that customers were left without a choice to smoke or not. By continually denying the addictive nature of cigarette smoking, the tobacco companies duped consumers into believing they could stop whenever they wanted, which eliminated free choice, the lawsuit says. Had the companies stated that tobacco was addictive, those who started to smoke would be making a conscious, informed decision.

A proposed $368.5 billion tobacco settlement now under debate in Congress would resolve lawsuits filed by states - including Utah - that sought reimbursement of tobacco-related Medicaid payments but not damages for individual smokers.

The new Utah complaint contends the tobacco industry should establish a medical monitoring fund for smokers, finance smoking-cessation programs and disgorge at least five years of gross revenues from cigarettes sales in Utah.

It also demands punitive damages. The total sought could top $1 billion.

"When people continue to die and continue to contract serious illnesses, these cases are going to continue to come," said attorney Robert S. Campbell, one of those filing the lawsuit. "We intend to take this case to trial."

All four plaintiffs took up cigarettes as teenagers, smoked for decades, and now are suffering from smoke-related illnesses. They hope their litigation - which also charges cigarette marketing targets juveniles - will help their children, grandchildren and other youths, the group agreed Saturday.

"I'd hate to have them end up with a hose in their nose and gasping for air," said Parley R. Young, 73, of West Jordan, a retired bank manager who now has emphysema and uses oxygen.

Adds Susan Hoggan, 50, of Salt Lake City: "Kids don't think addiction is going to happen to them. At 15, you think, `I can just quit; I won't do this later on.' "

Young, Hoggan and Marylyn Taylor, 60, South Jordan, have stopped smoking. "But every day of my life I want one," said Taylor, who has emphysema and cancer.

Carroll Jackson, 60, Salt Lake City, is still struggling to quit, while enduring chronic bronchitis and emphysema. "My feeling is (the tobacco industry) purposely poisoned us, made us slaves to something we wish we could get away from," Jackson said.

The industry has strenuously denied similar claims made in other litigation.

The lawsuit's defendants are: American Tobacco Co. and United States Tobacco Co., both of Connecticut; Philip Morris Inc. and Lorillard Tobacco Co., both of New York; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Liggett Group Inc., both of North Carolina; and Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp. of Kentucky.

Several affiliated companies are also named, along with The Council for Tobacco Research-U.S.A. Inc., and three regional distributors - Utah corporations Cuban Cigar Inc. and A.W. Marshall Co., and Nevada corporation Core-Mark International. Under product-liability law, distributors can be held legally responsible for a defective product.

The case has been assigned to 3rd District Judge Frank Noel.

Lawyers from the three Salt Lake firms, Campbell Maack & Sessions, Winder & Haslam and Burbidge & Mitchell, have already spent thousands of hours preparing the lawsuit, they said. Internal company documents uncovered by the state attorneys general and other litigation will help fuel the Utah suit.

"The bottom line is, these folks were not selling a natural agricultural product that's dried and rolled," said attorney Richard D. Burbidge. "It's a sophisticated, chemically engineered, nicotine-delivery system."

The Utah suit includes claims of product liability, violations of the Utah consumer sales practices act, fraudulent representation, breach of warranties and civil conspiracy.