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Back in the 1950s and 1960s, a North Carolina-based tobacco company attempted to entice young African-American children to become smokers by handing out free cigarettes in Boston. On Dec.14, a jury awarded $71 million in compensatory damages to the estate and child of a woman who died of lung cancer in 2002.

The Suffolk Superior Court in Boston ruled against Lorillard Tobacco. Willie Evans, the plaintiff, said that the company gave his mother, Marie Evans, free cigarettes as a child in the late 1950s outside of her home in the projects, and instilled in her a smoking habit. According to Evans and a video testimony from his mother, Marie Evans received cigarettes at the age of 9 and started smoking at the age of 13. Evans claimed that his mother smoked for nearly 40 years and died of lung cancer at the age of 54.

Lawyers for the tobacco company claim that Lorillard Tobacco gave out free cigarettes during the time to adults as a marketing ploy; it was simply an attempt to get consumers to change brands. They claim that the allegation against them was “disturbing” and that they never gave free products to Black children.

“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 Associated Press. “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.”

However, the jurors found the tobacco company to be guilty and awarded Willie Evans $21 million, plus $50 million in compensatory damages. This verdict, lawyers hope, will be eye-opening to the impact of tobacco companies’ advertising and marketing strategies in communities.

“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.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimates that nearly 4,000 people under 18 try their first cigarette each day. In addition, children and adolescents consume more than one billion packs of cigarettes each year, the Final Report of the National Commission on Drug-Free Schools says. Although Blacks smoke less cigarettes per day and start smoking later in life than Whites, their smoking-related disease mortality is higher.

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  • Alexandra

    Wow. Thanks for sharing this story.