A Minnesota court has reinstated a nearly decade-old class action suit claiming that the manufacturer of Marlboro Lights misled consumers by claiming that light cigarettes were healthier than the standard variety.

The ruling by the Minnesota Court of Appeals reverses a 2004 decision from the district court denying class certification for the suit against Philip Morris. In that decision, the court said that it would be necessary to determine why each class member smoked light rather than standard cigarettes, making the case inappropriate for class treatment.

But the appeals court disagreed, ruling that, since the central issue in the case is false advertising, the class members' individual reasons for smoking light cigarettes are largely irrelevant.

“As we understand it, appellants' theory of damages is that, no matter what individual factors may have been involved in a class member's decision to purchase Lights, all consumers of Lights were led by false advertising to believe that Lights were healthier than regular cigarettes when they were not,” the judges wrote in their 45-page opinion.

Ruling could lead to more litigation

An attorney for the plaintiffs said class certification is crucial to the case's survival.

“An individual consumer cannot take on, alone, a Philip Morris,” attorney Kay Nord Hunt told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “So I think it’s very important to the Minnesota consumers ... that they can proceed as a class.”

The court's theory -- that a case centered around false advertising does not require an investigation of each consumer's decision to buy light cigarettes -- could open the door to similar cases, if it holds. Perhaps for that reason, Murray Garnick, a spokesman for Philip Morris parent company Altria, was adamant that the ruling was wrong on the merits and contrary to precedent.

“We believe it is inappropriate to give class-action status to smokers’ claims because they raise numerous individual issues that can only be resolved based on the factual circumstances of each individual smoker,” Garnick told the Star Tribune. “Today’s ruling is contrary to every federal court decision on whether cases such as these should be certified [as a class action] and the overwhelming majority of state court decisions on the issue.”

Philip Morris said it is considering its options for an appeal.

False beliefs about “light cigarettes” continue to hold

The case highlights the misleading nature of so-called “Light” cigarettes. A recent survey found that 44 percent of smokers smoked “light” or “ultra-light” cigarettes, with one quarter of them saying they did so because they believed “light” cigarettes are less harmful and/or easier to quit than regular cigarettes.

New federal regulations, which took effect in July, prohibit manufacturers from using labels like “light,” “mild,” or “low.” Because of that law, “Marlboro Lights” are now branded as “Marlboro Gold.”