December 1, 2010

This case may have been filed a continent away, but the settlement will affect smokeless tobacco victims on the East Coast, in Oregon and everywhere in between. Hailed as a first for smokeless tobacco wrongful death cases, the parties settled for $5 million earlier this month. The claim was brought by the family of a 42-year-old man who died of cancer of the tongue. The defendant was a large manufacturer of several well-known brands of chewing tobacco.

The attorney for the plaintiff was understandably excited about the settlement. He viewed the settlement as a victory for tobacco critics who know these smokeless products are addictive, that their effect on the consumer’s health can be dire, and that all of this is fully understood by the manufacturers.

Experts say the settlement should spur other victims to come forward, and other personal injury attorneys to take on their cases. In the past, suits about smokeless tobacco have failed. Litigators have been more focused on cigarettes, because more data was available about the harm that comes from smoking. Tobacco companies have been successful, especially lately, arguing that warnings on packages and in advertisements alerted consumers to the dangers.

Smokeless tobacco, though, is being advertised in many markets as a less harmful alternative to cigarettes. With mounting evidence of the harmful effects of chewing, there may be new ammunition for claimants.

In 2007, the most recent data in Oregon, there was a modest increase in smokeless tobacco use among men and women over the age of 18. Of the 111,848 users, 7.6 percent were men and 0.3 percent women. The totals are conservative, though, because they do not include consumers aged 13 to 18. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most smokeless tobacco users under the age of 21 (a third of all users) developed the habit by their 13th birthday.

Cancer is one of the chief health risks of smokeless tobacco. Others include gum disease and tooth loss, high blood pressure and increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Source: MSNBC “Chewing Tobacco Maker to Pay $5 Million in First Wrongful Death Case” 12/07/10

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