Win for Baltimore in First-of-its-Kind Cigarette Filter Waste Lawsuit

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February 5, 2024

by Brian Eckert

A Maryland federal judge granted a request by the City of Baltimore to return a tobacco waste lawsuit against cigarette companies to the state court where it began a year ago.

This is the first case filed against Big Tobacco for the cleanup costs associated with non-biodegradable cigarette filters. Roy L. Mason, who is representing Baltimore, lauded the court’s ruling and said that, “Once again, Milberg is on the forefront of progressive litigation that seeks to effect positive change.”

Case Background and Timeline

The Mayor and City Council of Baltimore accuse Phillip Morris, Altria Group, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, British American Tobacco, Liggett Group, and The George J. Falter Company of imposing cleanup costs on the city due to their use of cellulose acetate-based cigarette filters.

In a press release, Baltimore officials said that every year, millions of the defendants’ cigarette filters are discarded citywide, polluting soil and water and creating a huge cleanup burden that Baltimore is forced to pay for. Baltimore reportedly spends more than $5 million annually to mitigate cigarette filter litter. Its lawsuit claims that cigarette companies should pay for cleanup efforts because they made a defective product and failed to warn people about those defects.

We believe this lawsuit will hold Big Tobacco accountable for the damage its product causes to the City’s streets and waterways.

According to a complaint filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, the tobacco company defendants chose to use non-biodegradable filters for their cigarette products, even though organic alternatives are available. Their cellulose-acetate filters contain hundreds of additives, including ammonia, formaldehyde, benzene, and heavy metals, that can leach into the environment when they end up as litter.

Cigarette filters are the most common form of litter in the world. Smokers discard more than 4.5 trillion cigarette filters worldwide every year. Often, the filters are disposed of improperly based on the widely held but mistaken belief that they are made of biodegradable cotton.

Tobacco companies know this but continue to make and sell cigarettes with toxic filters—and without warning labels informing smokers to properly dispose of the filters. Baltimore alleges that the defendants did not pursue more responsible and sustainable alternatives for fear such tactics would reduce sales.

“We believe this lawsuit will hold Big Tobacco accountable for the damage its product causes to the City’s streets and waterways,” said Baltimore City Solicitor James L. Shea.

The defendants filed a motion in February 2023 that moved the lawsuit from state court to federal court, arguing the case involves important questions of federal law, including whether federal statute preempts the City’s claims. Baltimore then filed a request to send the case back to state court.

The Court’s Opinion and Order

In an order dated January 19, 2024, Judge Rubin remanded the case to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.

Rubin wrote in an accompanying opinion that none of the claims in Baltimore City’s lawsuit—including design, labeling, marketing, and public nuisance claims—are related to federal questions or issues.

“Nothing about plaintiff’s failure to warn claims require review of whether defendants are in compliance with federal cigarette labeling law; and nothing about plaintiff’s failure to warn claims urge that defendants should have communicated a warning in any particular manner whatsoever,” said Judge Rubin.

The Public Health Law Center writes that this is an important win for the City for two reasons. First, the case can now proceed in state court where it was originally filed, potentially giving Baltimore a strategic advantage. Second, by dodging federal preemption claims, Baltimore avoided a major blow to its litigation.

“If the federal district court had agreed with the tobacco defendants’ argument, it would have been a signal that it also agreed (or was inclined to agree) that the City’s claims were preempted by federal law, and thus were not viable,” said the Public Health Law Center. “By rejecting the tobacco defendant’s arguments and remanding the case, however, the Court affirmed that the City’s state law claims are not necessarily preempted.”

With the ruling, Baltimore City is one step closer to having a jury hear its case. Baltimore seeks to recover expenditures and losses resulting from cigarette filter litter in the city, including cleanup and disposal costs, damage to natural resources, diminution in property values, and loss of revenue, as well as fines for dumping litter in the city.

Roy L. Mason, Co-Chair of Milberg’s Environmental Practice, is representing Baltimore along with the City’s Law Department.