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Tobacco suit cites youth push

The son of a woman who started receiving free Newport cigarettes at her Roxbury housing project when she was just 9 years old is suing the brand's maker for its role in his mother's death in what legal experts say is the nation's first lawsuit to accuse a tobacco company of deliberately targeting its product to African-American children.

Marie Evans, who died from lung cancer at age 54 in 2002, said that, as a child, she would regularly get free sample packs of 4 to 10 Newports during company giveaways on the edge of a playground at the Orchard Park housing complex. In interviews with lawyers before she died, Evans estimated that she received samples from the "Newport van" 25 to 50 times. She initially traded them for candy, but said she began to smoke at age 13.

"They have employed these marketing strategies to target not only children, but children in the black community," said Rebecca McIntyre of Weisman & McIntyre in Boston, which is filing the lawsuit against North Carolina-based Lorillard Tobacco on Monday in Suffolk Superior Court. "It's evil."

Lorillard officials have known Evans' son, Will Evans, was considering a lawsuit for at least two years, giving them time to question Marie Evans. However, Lorillard attorney Andrew J. McElaney, Jr., said the company would have no comment until after the complaint is filed.

Only 14 of the hundreds of smoker lawsuits filed against tobacco companies in the past 50 years have prevailed so far, according to Northeastern University's Tobacco Products Liability Project, and just one case in Massachusetts has even made it to a jury (American Tobacco won). However, legal analysts say Evans' case could short-circuit the industry's standard argument against adult smokers: they were old enough to know better.

"I don't think any of the other lawsuits have focused on the issue of the deliberate campaign of handing out free samples to a child," said Edward L. Sweda, Jr., senior staff attorney at the Northeastern center. There was no specific damage request.

Will Evans argues that his mother was seduced by a marketing strategy that was illegal even in the 1950s, before the landmark 1964 surgeon general's report suggesting smoking could cause cancer. State law banned giving cigarettes to children, but McIntyre said Lorillard was so eager to hook young smokers that they deliberately broke it, turning children like Evans, who had little money to buy cigarettes on their own, into Newport loyalists.

Evans went on to smoke Newports her entire life, her son said, struggling to quit even after she was diagnosed with cancer.

For years, critics have charged that the tobacco industry targets underage African-Americans with its marketing campaigns, especially promoting mentholated cigarettes such as Newport and Salem, which are especially popular in black neighborhoods.

Greg Connolly, the state's former top anti-smoking official who is now with the Harvard School of Public Health, said "it's a given" that Newports are marketed to young blacks, noting that more than half of African-American teen smokers choose Newports.

Norman Black, creative director for the advertising agency that promoted Newports from 1974 to 1992, admits he geared his ads to attract underage smokers, though not always specifically blacks, since they smoked Newports in such large numbers anyway. He used models in their street clothes, or in provocative situations such as a group shower, to promote a youthful image. "You couldn't make it too obvious," he said in an interview with the Globe.

Black said that cigarette giveaways for adults, not banned from public places in Boston until 1984, were an important part of marketing, recalling that he designed colorful Newport vans to do the job. He called free cigarettes "one of the best ways of getting people to smoke your cigarettes . . . You open up the doors on a van and say, 'Hey, we're giving away free cigarettes' at a beach in New York City and you'll be inundated."

Black, who made a public service announcement for Massachusetts in 2000 apologizing for his work for Newport, is remorseful about his career now.

Documents posted by Lorillard on a website as part of a settlement with state attorneys general suggest that in the late 1950s to the early 1960s -- the aggressive pursuit of underage smokers and blacks was openly discussed within the company, according to McIntyre.

For instance, McIntyre found a 1963 memo from a top advertising executive to Lorillard's vice president that joked, "There's nothing like starting them out young!" along with a photo of a smiling young white boy accepting a Newport from a woman. By 1981, an internal report at Lorillard acknowledges that "Newport is being heavily supported by blacks and the under-18 smokers."

Will Evans said his mother believed Newport's assurances in advertising and company-funded research that their product didn't cause cancer for years, in spite of the government warnings on the label. That all changed in December 2001, when she was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer, a form of the disease overwhelmingly associated with smoking. "She didn't really think cigarettes would be the thing that killed her," said Will Evans. "It was an eye opener when she got the diagnosis."

After that, Marie Evans became increasingly outraged over the way Lorillard seduced her into smoking as a child, Will Evans said. She continued depositions in preparation for a lawsuit down to the last weeks of her life.

Michael D. Weisman, who is also working on Evans' case, said he expects Lorillard to try "to bury us in paperwork," but he points out that his firm was set up in 1997 to spend the time necessary to take on cases against powerful adversaries.

"They set out to addict a child, addicted her and then killed her," he said. "We will have a trial."

Scott Allen can be reached by email at 

Marie Evans, seen here as a child, began smoking at age 13. She died of lung cancer in 2002 at age 54.
Marie Evans, seen here as a child, began smoking at age 13. She died of lung cancer in 2002 at age 54.
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