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Cigarette Maker May Have To Pay For Chest Exams, Mass. Court Rules

The highest court in Massachusetts ruled unanimously Monday that cigarette maker Philip Morris may have to pay for computerized chest scans for its customers in an effort to detect early-stage lung cancer.

In its ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court upheld a federal lawsuit filed in 2006 by three Massachusetts residents — Patricia Cawley of Rockland, Kathleen Donovan of Randolph and James Teague of Lowell — who each wanted a diagnostic chest exam known as a CT screening, but whose health insurance plans would not cover the scans.

Lawyers for the three plaintiffs — all of them long-time smokers — argued in the suit that Philip Morris should have to pay for their CT screens because the company had manufactured a product that contains a known carcinogen, putting its customers at high risk of lung cancer.

Boston attorney Neil T. Leifer is one of the plaintiffs' lawyers.

"We allege that Philip Morris made a defective product that contained carcinogens at a time when they could have made a safe product," Leifer said, "and as a result there are a lot of people who used their product and are at risk for lung cancer."

So, he says, Philip Morris should have to foot the bill for a test that could help save their lives.

The company said in a statement that it disagrees with the decision and believes the case should be dismissed by a federal trial court.

The original complaint, filed as a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court, requested that Philip Morris fund CT scans for people at least 50 years old who have smoked a pack of Marlboro cigarettes a day for at least 20 years — the equivalent of at least 146,000 cigarettes — and have not been diagnosed with lung cancer.

The SJC's ruling says the suit is permitted under state law and outlines eligibility rules for other smokers who may want to join the suit. The case may now go forward as a class-action lawsuit.

The lawsuit targets Philip Morris because the company accounts for half of all tobacco product sales, and it specifies the company's Marlboro line of cigarettes because the brand has a 40 percent market share.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of U.S. cancer deaths, killing about 160,000 people a year, and smoking is responsible for between 80 and 90 percent of those fatalities, according to the American Lung Association.

This program aired on October 19, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Sacha Pfeiffer Twitter Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.

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