A North Carolina-based tobacco company tried to entice African-American children to become smokers by handing out free cigarettes in Boston during the 1950s and 1960s, a jury ruled on Dec. 14, awarding $71 million in compensatory damages to the estate and child of a woman who died of lung cancer in 2002.
According to the Associated Press, the Suffolk Superior Court in Boston announced the guilty verdict against Lorillard Tobacco following weeks of testimony in the case. The plaintiff, Willie Evans, alleged that Lorillard gave his mother, Marie Evans, free cigarettes when she was just a child in the late 1950s outside her housing project home, setting her on the path to developing a smoking habit. Evans said his mother smoked for more than 40 years before dying of lung cancer at age 54.
Willie Evans was awarded $21 million, and the jury awarded $50 million in compensatory damages to Marie Evans’ estate.
Lawyers for the Greensboro, N.C.-based company said they gave out free cigarettes in decades past to adults to try to persuade them to change brands, but claimed that they never gave free products to Black children and deemed the allegation “disturbing.”
The company also claims that it was Evans’ decision to start smoking and said that she continued to do so even after she had a heart attack in 1985. Lorillard intends to appeal the verdict.
“Lorillard respectfully disagrees with the jury’s verdict and denies the plaintiff’s claim that the company sampled to children or adults at Orchard Park in the early 1960s,” Gregg Perry, a company spokesman told the AP. “The plaintiff’s 50-year-old memories were persuasively contradicted by testimony from several witnesses. The company will appeal and is confident it will prevail once the Massachusetts Court of Appeals reviews this case.”
During the trial, jurors were shown a 2002 video of Evans, in which she claimed that the cigarette giveaways had a large impact on her, and said she couldn’t stop smoking once she was addicted. Her lawyers said that although she acquired free cigarettes as early as nine years old, she didn’t start smoking them until she was 13.
Many believe this groundbreaking verdict will generate similar cases across the country, as many Blacks can recall a time when they were given free cigarettes when they were children.
“We’re hopeful that with the word of this verdict that it will not only help educate the public about this particular company and their history but may encourage other people who have gone through similar experiences in their lives to contact a lawyer,” Edward A. Sweda, a senior attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Boston’s Northeastern University School of Law, told the AP.
According to the American Heart Association, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimates that more than 4,000 people under 18 try their first cigarette each day. Also, the Final Report of the National Commission on Drug-Free Schools found that children and adolescents consume more than one billion packs of cigarettes per year. The Heart Association also found that although Blacks generally smoke fewer cigarettes per day and begin smoking later in life than Whites, their smoking-related disease mortality is considerably higher.