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He's in town for slap shots on goal — and legal shots at tobacco

Hockey lovin' Ed Sweda is down from Boston, here to cheer on his beloved Boston College in the Frozen Four playoffs for the NCAA Men's Ice Hockey championship at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

We chatted Wednesday morning about the team's chances (good). Sweda donned a worn Boston College Eagles cap and, still unsure of our weather, a fleece vest.

What he is sure of are the legal slap shots he plans to continue firing at the deep-pocketed makers of cigarettes.

Sweda's the senior attorney for the Tobacco Liability Project, a project of the Public Health Advocacy Institute run out of Northeastern University. He's battled the tobacco industry more than 30 years since graduating from law school. He's a walking memoir of the good fight against a seemingly invulnerable industry.

If Sweda's heart remains in Boston, his litigious love is Florida. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the reversal of a $145 billion punitive damages verdict awarded to what were then 700,000 ailing Florida smokers. It's known as the Engle case.

But the same court let smokers sue individually and upheld findings that smoking causes disease, that nicotine is addictive, that cigarettes are defective and dangerous, and that tobacco companies hid the health effects of smoking.

Since then, Florida's become home to thousands of lawsuits by smokers against tobacco companies.

So far, says Sweda, the tobacco industry is losing about two of every three lawsuits decided. Many years of litigation still lie ahead.

The U.S. Supreme Court reinforced that forecast last week. The court refused to hear an appeal by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in a Pensacola case in which it was ordered to pay $28.3 million to Mathilde Martin. Her husband, Benny, died in 1995 of lung cancer after decades of smoking the company's Lucky Strike brand.

"Tobacco companies face the prospect of having to pay billions of dollars in liability to Florida smokers after the U.S. Supreme Court decision," Sweda says.

Still, the bigger battle over tobacco is not in the courts but in society. Sweda points to the still-too-high number of young people between 12 and 18 who start smoking because it retains a certain cool factor.

How do you fight that?

Keep raising the already expensive price on cigarettes.

Keep showing up at shareholder meetings to pressure tobacco executives about society's costs from smoking.

Keep pushing to ban smoking, as some communities are, from building exteriors, campuses, parks and beaches, and even in condos based on the argument that smoke can be smelled through shared walls.

Keep pushing to limit the marketing of cigarettes. Keep pressing for even more startlingly graphic warnings labels on tobacco packaging.

And, Sweda says, keep pushing in the courts for big verdicts and hefty damages.

In the end, he says, it's all about making tobacco companies bear the legal and financial responsibility for harm caused by people using their products.

Tobacco companies have been ordered to pay more than $375 million in 60 of the cases arising from the Engle case. Trial dates have been set for 75 more suits for this year.

There's a legal lesson in hockey. Shoot often and hard, and sometimes you score.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@tampabay.com.

He's in town for slap shots on goal — and legal shots at tobacco 04/04/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 9:52pm]
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