SAN FRANCISCO — A unanimous California Supreme Court ruled yesterday that federal law trumps state provisions when it comes to cigarette marketing allegedly targeting children.
The high court let stand two lower-court rulings tossing out a long-running class-action lawsuit brought by smokers who said they took up the habit as minors because of the companies' marketing.
Because the plaintiffs failed to present evidence that the advertisements were misleading and targeted exclusively to children, federal cigarette-labeling laws and the companies' First Amendment rights to commercial speech allow the marketing campaigns, Justice Joyce Kennard wrote for the court.
The companies' "cigarette advertising concerns lawful activity because it is addressed to adults who can legally purchase and use cigarettes, and not exclusively to minors who cannot," Kennard wrote.
"We believe the California Supreme Court reached the right result in light of what the U.S. Supreme Court has said" about federal cigarette-labeling laws trumping state provisions, said Philip Morris Inc. lawyer William Ohlemeyer.
The California Supreme Court also noted the state shared in a $206 billion nationwide settlement in 1998 that included banning ads on billboards and public transportation and banning cartoon characters such as the iconic Joe Camel character, which the California lawsuit used as an example of the kind advertising that was allegedly illegal.
"This decision, while upholding some restrictions, nevertheless reaffirms the full authority of the California attorney general to enforce the multibillion-dollar tobacco settlement, especially when minors are involved," state Attorney General Jerry Brown said.
The original 1998 lawsuit against the country's six largest tobacco companies sought to have them forfeit between $700 million and $2 billion allegedly earned from sales to an estimated 1.5 million teen smokers in California between 1994 and 1999.
"Our position has always been that while the advertisements may be lawful to target adults, it's unlawful to target the sandbox," said the smokers' attorney, Norman Blumenthal.