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NAQC Newsroom: Research

Assumption of Risk and the Role of Health Warnings Labels in the United States.

Thursday, June 20, 2019  
Posted by: Natalia Gromov
Cummings KM, Gdanski J, Sebrie E.
Assumption of Risk and the Role of Health Warnings Labels in the United States.
Nicotine Tob Res. 2019 May 25. pii: ntz089. doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntz089. [Epub ahead of print]
This paper provides historical context for understanding how the cigarette industry have manipulated language used in health warning labels (HWLs) to protect them in litigation. Review of previously secret internal business records from 1964 discussing the role HWLs on cigarettes. Review of the legal challenges made by cigarette manufacturers surrounding HWLs as mandated in the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (FSPTCA) and the language in corrective statements ordered by US Department of Justice (DOJ). Within days after the Surgeon General's Advisory Committee (SGAC) issued its 1964 Report the cigarette companies plotted how they could use HWLs on cigarettes as a defense in future litigation. Industry lawyers discussed drafting legislation that would preempt other government agencies from requiring HWLs on cigarette containers and in cigarette advertising with language mirroring the key findings of the SGAC report. In July 1965, Congress did pass legislation which mandated a single watered-down cigarette pack HWL which excluded cigarette advertising, just as industry lawyers had recommended. Subsequent HWL laws passed by Congress in 1969 and 1984 along with the more recent history of manufacturers opposing updated graphic HWLs and corrective statements reflects a consistent and continuing effort by cigarette companies to insulate themselves from taking responsibility for harms caused by smoking. Beginning in the mid-1960s and continuing even through today, lawyers working on behalf of cigarettes companies have worked to manipulate the language of consumer warnings to focus responsibility for the harms caused by smoking on smokers. In tobacco litigation, juries should be informed about the industry's coordinated effort to draft legislation and water down the original caution statements proposed on cigarette containers and in advertising even though Congress ultimately is responsible for the law that was enacted. In addition, even though the 1992 Supreme Court decision in the Cipollone case preempted post-1969 failure to warm claims against cigarette makers, this protection does not apply on pre-1969 warning claims where the evidence shows that cigarette companies understood they were selling a defective product that when used as intended would harm their customers. Thus, those initiating smoking before 1969 and subsequently harmed by cigarettes can hold cigarette makers responsible for their failure to warn them about health risks.

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