LEE COUNTY — From age 11 up until his larynx was removed in 1993, cigarettes were a daily part of John "Jack" Syzmanski's life.
Syzmanski tried quitting several times. He tried using what he believed were healthier cigarettes. Yet Syzmanski, a former Collier County School District principal, remained a smoker, testifying Monday that he wasn't sure about the dangers of cigarettes.
Syzmanski, the first of about 12 dozen Lee County plaintiffs with lawsuits against tobacco companies, took the stand Monday to testify about his smoking history, casting blame on the lack of information about the dangers of smoking. Florida plaintiffs diagnosed with tobacco-related diseases before November 1996 are allowed to file individual claims against tobacco manufacturers after a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling decertified a class-action lawsuit involving up to 700,000 residents.
The former Marco Island resident testified he knew smoking was harmful but was unsure about the extent of its impact. Syzmanski, 72, has been diagnosed with cancer three times — of the larynx, lymph nodes and tongue — between 1993 and 2010.
"There was a controversy in my mind about how bad cigarettes were," Syzmanski said. "I still wasn't sure."
His strongest rebuke came when asked about documents shown last week that indicated tobacco company executives conspired to conceal the effects of smoking.
"I was appalled, I was mad and I couldn't believe it," Syzmanski said, his voice rising as he stared at lawyers for Philip Morris USA, R.J. Reynolds and Liggett Group LLC, the defendants in the case.
Walt Cofer, an attorney for Philip Morris USA, questioned Syzmanski about inconsistencies between his testimony to jurors Monday and his three depositions taken in 2010 and 2011.
In earlier depositions, Syzmanski said he first tried to quit smoking while attending Utah State University, which differed from testimony Monday that he first tried to quit in high school by hiding cigarette packs or throwing them out his car window.
Cofer highlighted inconsistent statements about the types of cigarettes Syzmanski said he smoked, and found that Syzmanski bought cigarettes based advertisements, a statement he earlier denied.
Syzmanski's medical history and honesty also were brought into question. As Cofer pointed out, Syzmanski lied to doctors in the late 1980s, telling them he had quit cigarettes when he continued to smoke a few cigarettes a day. On a life insurance form filled out in the 1970s, Syzmanski said his smoking wasn't "excessive," though he smoked two to three packs per day.
"I thought it was normal," Syzmanski said. "My smoking was not excessive I thought at the time."
When Syzmanski underwent radiation after his first cancer diagnosis, he continued to suck on the end of cigarettes. He also ignored a doctor's advice to not spend time on his sailboat; if he fell in the water, the doctor wrote, he could drown immediately after having his larynx removed.
Defense lawyers contend other factors could have contributed to Syzmanski's cancer and that he knew the risks of smoking.
Throughout the nearly six hours of testimony, Syzmanski repeated his story of becoming a regular smoker.
His first cigarette was a Chesterfield, smoked at age 11 while in his New Jersey home. He developed a pack-a-day habit in high school, but tried to quit because the ashes would damage his clothes and gray convertible. He continued smoking at Utah State despite opposition to it from Mormons.
Over time, he switched brands and moved from non-filtered to filtered to light cigarettes.
"I thought the lights were healthier, and it seems that way from the advertisements," Syzmanski said.
Lawyers for R.J. Reynolds and Liggett Group LLC didn't cross-examine Syzmanski. The trial before Lee County Circuit Judge Sherra Winesett is expected to continue this week.