(CBS/AP) The Supreme Court ruled Monday that lawsuits may proceed against tobacco companies for allegedly deceptive marketing of "light" cigarettes.
In a 5-4 split won by the court's liberals, the court said that smokers may use state consumer protection laws to sue cigarette makers for the way they promote "light" and "low tar" brands.
"This is a bit of a victory for plaintiffs and a defeat for the tobacco companies, but all it does is allow a state court case to move forward and it is a sign that the court's conservative justices aren't always going to be successful in protecting business over consumers," writes CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen.
The decision was at odds with recent anti-consumer rulings that limited state regulation of business in favor of federal power.
"The justices haven't exactly been consistent with the idea of when and how federal laws trump state ones when it comes to health and welfare cases," writes Cohen. "A few weeks ago, the court said federal law prevails; now in another case it's siding with the states and allowing this cigarette case to at least move one more step closer to resolution."
The tobacco companies argued that the lawsuits are barred by the federal cigarette labeling law, which forbids states from regulating any aspect of cigarette advertising that involves smoking and health.
Justice John Paul Stevens, however, said in his majority opinion that the labeling law does not shield the companies from state laws against deceptive practices.
People suing the cigarette makers still must prove that the use of "light" and "lowered tar" actually violate the state anti-fraud laws, but those lawsuits may go forward, Stevens said.
He was joined by the other liberal justices, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter, as well as Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose vote often decides cases where there is an ideological division.
Three Maine residents sued Altria Group Inc. and its Philip Morris USA Inc. subsidiary under the state's law against unfair marketing practices. The class-action claim represents all smokers of Marlboro Lights or Cambridge Lights cigarettes, both made by Philip Morris.
The lawsuit argues that the company knew for decades that smokers of light cigarettes compensate for the lower levels of tar and nicotine by taking longer puffs and compensating in other ways.
A federal district court threw out the lawsuit, but the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it could go forward.
The companies were hoping that the court would send a clear message that would essentially end dozens of such lawsuits that have been filed around the country.
The case is Altria Group Inc. v. Good, 07-562.