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‘Cigarette man’ cited as tobacco trial begins

Woman says he gave children samples

Marie Evans is pictured at age 9. Marie Evans is pictured at age 9.
By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / November 13, 2010

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They called him the “cigarette man,’’ and he routinely made his way into the Roxbury neighborhood four decades ago.

The white man, driving a truck, would roll into what was then the segregated black section of the Orchard Hill housing complex with samples of Newport cigarettes for everyone, even for children, according to testimony in Suffolk Superior Court yesterday.

“There was always kids playing in the area, and they couldn’t miss a white man, in a white truck, handing out cigarettes,’’ said Leslie Adamson, a smoker who grew up in the housing development. “They came running whenever that truck came.’’

Adamson smoked those cigarettes, she said. And so did her sisters.

Appearing calm and speaking pointedly, Adamson testified yesterday in the first day of a trial in a lawsuit brought on behalf of the estate of her older sister, Marie Evans, who smoked Newport cigarettes for 40 years before she died in 2002 of lung cancer. She was 54.

The lawsuit, believed to be the first of its kind, alleges cigarette manufacturer Lorillard Inc., seduced Evans with a marketing plan that targeted urban communities and youngsters with samples of Newport cigarettes, a menthol brand popular among black neighborhoods and young smokers.

“It’s about a choice Marie Evans made when she was 13 years old,’’ the estate’s lawyer, Michael Weisman, said in opening arguments yesterday. “This case is about why Marie started smoking, why she kept smoking, and why she ultimately developed lung cancer and died.’’

Evans’s son, Willie, the executor of her estate, brought the lawsuit, and at points he showed tears in the courtroom during discussions about his mother.

But Walter Cofer, a Kansas City-based lawyer representing Lorillard, told jurors that the cigarette manufacturer never gave cigarettes to children at Orchard Park, and that it shouldn’t be held accountable for a woman who chose to smoke and never quit in spite of knowing the health risk. She did not quit after her father had died of lung cancer, or after she had a heart attack at age 36, or not even even after her doctor told her she had lung cancer.

“She went back to smoking, and she smoked until she died,’’ he said.

The trial, which could last into mid-December, could be groundbreaking in that it tests not only the marketing of menthol brands to minority communities, but also to youngsters. Lawsuits against tobacco companies are difficult to win in that juries are reluctant to release blame from a smoker, but in this case the smoker started as a youngster who may not have known better, said Richard A. Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University and president of the Public Health Advocacy Institute.

“It’s unique in that it involves a focus on the so-called sampling, the fact that it was central to Lorillard’s strategy in moving its brand name to Number One,’’ Daynard said. “It was successful in doing it, and it was successful in having Marie Evans smoke as a child.’’

Daynard said the trial is being held at a time when the US Food and Drug Administration is considering a ban on menthol cigarettes, a brand more popular among teens and blacks who smoke. He said the marketing strategies proved successful.

“It’s really the same issue that we’re seeing here in the courtroom in Boston, and in a national stage before the FDA,’’ he said.

According to court records, Evans was as young as 9 years old when she would get sampling packets of four cigarettes from those white trucks. At first, she traded them for candy. By 13, she started smoking them.

In a videotaped deposition she took weeks before her death, Evans said she bore responsibility for her inability to quit, but “I don’t think it’s a choice. It’s an addiction.’’

“I was addicted; I just couldn’t stop,’’ she said. “The desire was there . . . the craving, I just couldn’t overcome [it].’’

In his opening statements yesterday, Weisman sought to convince jurors that Lorillard for decades was part of a strategy by the tobacco industry to first hide, and then downplay, the health risks of cigarettes.

He also said the company outlined a deliberate strategy to market to youngsters.

“Who are they talking about? The evidence will be, they are talking about children, they are talking about Marie Evans,’’ he said. “Lorillard knew it the first time they handed a cigarette to Marie Evans — hook them when they’re young.’’

In his opening statements, Cofer said Evans was well aware of the health risks of smoking and that she never quit. He said no evidence will show that samples were passed out to youngsters, and said that Evans acknowledged under questioning before she died that the first cigarette she smoked was given to her by a sister.

He said the lawsuit was filed strictly for monetary reasons.

Adamson said yesterday that she and Evans had tried to quit. They went to cessation programs and underwent hypnosis. There was even a man called the Mad Russian who was said to have a cure.

It never worked.

Adamson was with her sister when she learned she would die within months.

Evans, according to her sister, had said, “Well, I wasn’t expecting it to be so soon.’’

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.

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