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Spring Hill man suing cigarette makers over illness

Published:   |   Updated: August 16, 2013 at 02:31 PM

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BROOKSVILLE - After a vigorous three days spent selecting a jury, opening arguments were heard Thursday in John Rizzuto's lawsuit against cigarette manufacturers Philip Morris and the Liggett Group.

Rizzuto, 66, has suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease since the 1990s. In 2008, the Spring Hill man filed a civil lawsuit against the two tobacco companies.

Rizzuto's attorney, Brent Bigger, described him as a "family man" during opening arguments, a widower who carries on the Italian-American tradition of Sunday dinners with his family.

Bigger showed images of celebrities smoking around the time Rizzuto had his first L&M cigarette at age 13. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin smoked, Bigger said, two leviathans for "an Italian kid growing up in Queens."

During the jury selection process, Bigger said Rizzuto takes a portion of the responsibility of his cigarette addiction, which lasted for about 40 years, from the early 1960s to 2000. The lawsuit, Bigger said, is about Big Tobacco's covering up the most serious health problems caused by smoking - a "50-year conspiracy" documented in internal memos he intends to present during the trial.

Bigger said the cigarette industry went from "nonexistent" to "enormous" by enticing teenage and college-aged smokers, "trapping them in the addiction cycle as long as possible" and repeating the cycle with new smokers who replace those who have quit.

"You don't launch a nationwide campaign with one soldier," Bigger said. "Everyone became a cigarette smoker."

William Geraghty, who represents the maker of Rizzuto's preferred Marlboro Reds, said during his opening statement the trial was about "control and responsibility."

"This case is about one former cigarette smoker, John Rizzuto, why he chose to start smoking, and not to quit until years after he was already diagnosed with COPD," Geraghty said.

Geraghty walked the jury through a timeline of Rizzuto's life, starting with his 1947 birth. Rizzuto's mother, father and older brother smoked, Geraghty said, and around the time Rizzuto would have been 6 or 7 years old, "90 percent of people in this country had heard smoking causes lung cancer." In the 1980s, Rizzuto quit cold turkey for about six weeks before lighting up again, Geraghty said, and ignored his doctor's orders in the 1990s to stop smoking.

Rizzuto didn't stop smoking until he was hospitalized for shortness of breath around 2000. He then quit and hasn't smoked since.

"For the first time in his life he was actually concerned about his health," Geraghty said, adding Rizzuto has said he didn't "experience any serious withdrawal symptoms."

"It didn't matter what anyone said about cigarette smoking, his family, doctor, cigarette companies ... he made no real effort until he decided it was time to quit, no one else made that decision for him."

Afternoon testimony was dedicated to Jack Henningfield, a scientist who is vice president of research, health policy and abuse liability at a Maryland-based Pinney Associates, and also teaches at Johns Hopkins. Henningfield explained to jurors how the brain is changed by nicotine, and said in his professional opinion Rizzuto was likely a smoker addicted to cigarettes. Henningfield also dissected a cigarette for the jurors.

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