BOSTON (AP) — Leslie Adamson said the white truck that stopped at the Boston housing project she grew up in brought adults and children running, much like a visit from the ice cream man.
But instead of sweets, the truck brought free cigarette samples.
The cigarette giveaways are a central issue in a lawsuit brought against Lorillard Tobacco Co. by a man who claims his mother was introduced to smoking as a child through the free samples and became so addicted that she was unable to quit and eventually died of lung cancer. Lorillard denies that anyone from the company gave out cigarettes to children.
Willie Evans, the son of Marie Evans, alleges in his lawsuit that Lorillard gave away Newport cigarettes in urban neighborhoods in an effort to hook black children and teenagers on cigarettes. Marie Evans died in 2002 at the age of 54 after smoking for four decades.
Adamson, Marie Evans’ younger sister, was the first witness to testify as the trial opened in Suffolk Superior Court on Friday. She said she first began getting free cigarettes in packs of 4 when she was about 7 or 8 years old in the Orchard Park housing project.
“It looked like a Frosty truck,” Adamson said. “I just remember people clamoring and cigarettes being handed out.”
Lorillard attorney Walter Cofer acknowledged that the company gave away free cigarette samples — a common practice by tobacco companies from the 1950s through the 1980s — but said Lorillard did not give cigarettes to children at Orchard Park.
Cofer said the company handed out samples at shopping malls and transit stations to adults in an attempt to get them to switch brands, but did not give them to children. He called the allegation that Lorillard intentionally gave out free samples to black children “disturbing.”
“It’s designed to appeal to your emotions and to make you mad, but the evidence will be … it didn’t happen,” Cofer told the jury in opening statements.
Cofer argued that Evans made the decision to start smoking and that she continued to smoke even after she suffered a heart attack in 1985 and her doctors repeatedly urged her to quit. He said Evans knew for decades that smoking could be harmful to her health, citing warning labels that began appearing on cigarette labels in 1966 and her own father’s death from lung cancer in 1970.
“They brought a case asking for money based on Miss Evans’ decisions,” Cofer said.
Michael Weisman, the attorney representing Evans’ son, told jurors that Lorillard targeted children because the company knew that most people begin smoking as children.
“Lorillard knew it the first time they handed a cigarette to Marie Evans. Hook ‘em when they’re young,” Weisman said.
He said Evans received her first free cigarettes at about age 9, and initially gave them to her older sisters or traded them for candy. He said she began smoking at age 13, and relied on the free cigarettes she received when the Lorillard truck came around.
Jurors also heard from Marie Evans herself as Weisman played excerpts from a videotaped deposition she gave to her lawyers in 2002, three weeks before she died.
On the tape, Evans said the giveaways had a “large impact” on her.
“Because they were available … I didn’t worry about finding money to buy them. They seemed to be always available,” she said.
Evans said she made about 50 attempts to quit, but always went back to smoking.
“I was addicted. … I just couldn’t stop,” she said.
The trial is expected to last four to five weeks. Testimony resumes Monday.