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First-Ever Settlement Against Smokeless Tobacco Maker for Wrongful Death

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The country’s largest maker of smokeless tobacco has reached a $5 million settlement after being sued by the family of a 42-year-old man who died of mouth cancer, The Wall Street Journal reported Dec. 8.

This is the first time a verdict linking smokeless tobacco to wrongful death has been rendered against the tobacco industry.  A jury sided with tobacco companies in a lawsuit filed in the 1980s on behalf of a teenaged-user of smokeless tobacco who died of mouth cancer.

Bobby Hill of North Carolina began using Skoal and Copenhagen, leading brands of UST, Inc., in the late 1970s, at age 13. At that time, no health warnings appeared on smokeless tobacco packaging. After Hill’s death, his family sued UST. Other suits are pending against the company. 

Antonio Ponvert III, who represented Hill’s family, said, “The fact that he was addicted as a child took away any personal responsibility defense, and the absence of any label meant they couldn’t say, ’We warned you.’”

Ponvert acquired letters to UST written by children in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They said they used smokeless tobacco and asked the company to keep its products cheap enough for them to keep buying them. The company’s replies frequently included samples of free smokeless tobacco.

Ponvert said, “And this was at a time when there was federal and state legislation prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors.”

Altria would not comment on aspects of the case predating its acquisition of UST.

The lawsuit comes at a time when cigarette sales are dropping and smokeless tobacco sales are growing. According to The Wall Street Journal, public health officials are generally opposed to describing smokeless tobacco as less dangerous than cigarettes although it is “significantly less lethal.”

Smokeless tobacco has been linked to a greater chance of heart disease, and the products often contain carcinogens linked to cancer — especially oral cancer. The risks grow if the user also smokes or drinks. 

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