Altria Group Inc.’s top executive expressed confidence yesterday that the nation’s largest tobacco company can defend itself against a wave of smoker lawsuits in Florida. He also defended the company’s recent attempt to remove four members of a mostly government-appointed scientific board that will advise the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on its new regulatory authority over tobacco products.
Henrico County-based Altria is “bullish” that it can successfully fight thousands of lawsuits filed in Florida against cigarette companies, Michael E. Szymanczyk, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer, said at the company’s annual meeting yesterday.
Altria is the parent company of cigarette maker Philip Morris USA, smokeless tobacco maker U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., cigar manufacturer John Middleton Inc. and wine producer Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
“Litigation is part of this business,” Szymanczyk said after one shareholder, lawyer and tobacco-control advocate Edward L. Sweda Jr., asked whether the company would reconsider its practice of refusing to settle lawsuits, considering the scope of the cases in Florida.
About 9,500 individual claims have been filed in state and federal courts since the Florida Supreme Court decertified a statewide $145 billion class-action lawsuit in 2006.
Lawsuits against the company “remain a challenge,” Szymanczyk said. “But if you look at the past decade, the company has had success defending its shareholders’ interests.”
For instance, Philip Morris said Wednesday that a jury in Duval County, Fla., returned a verdict in favor of the company in a lawsuit filed by the family of a smoker. Of the Florida cases that have gone to trial, verdicts in seven lawsuits have gone against Philip Morris USA, according to the company’s most recent quarterly report.
Yesterday, a jury in Fort Lauderdale ordered R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the No. 2 U.S. cigarette company, to pay $29.1 million to the widow of a Florida man who started smoking at age 13 and died of lung disease in 2008 at age 80.
Szymanczyk said the company is seeking to work with the FDA as the agency implements new regulations on tobacco products. Altria supported the legislation passed by Congress last year.
Yet one of the company’s critics at the meeting questioned why Altria, in March, sought to remove four of the 12 members of a scientific advisory board that is studying issues such as the health effects of menthol cigarettes.
“It seems there is a contradiction, when the company is trying to get rid of people who are concerned about public health and advising the FDA,” said Rev. Michael Crosby, a priest and tobacco-control activist from Milwaukee.
In its request to the FDA, Altria argued that the four panel members had conflicts of interest, including having served as paid experts for plaintiffs in lawsuits against tobacco companies. The FDA denied the company’s request to remove them from the board.
“We are participating” in the FDA’s regulatory process, Szymanczyk told about 130 shareholders who attended the meeting at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. “And part of participating involves representing shareholder interests.”