Tobacco Giants Fire Back In $280 Billion Trial

By Agence France-Presse The U.S. tobacco industry on Sept. 22 fired its first shots in a bid to undermine a U.S. government claim for $280 billion to punish firms it accuses of plotting to cover up the harm of smoking. On the second day of the tobacco trial in Washington, D.C., lawyers for the major industry firms said the companies no longer seek to hide the fact that cigarettes are "a dangerous product," but they stressed that the industry must be judged on its behavior now. Ted Wells, co-counsel for Philip Morris USA, led the defense argument by saying: "As of today, each and every defendant says to the public in a clear and unambiguous way that smoking is dangerous and causes disease." In the largest-ever U.S. civil racketeering case, the government accuses tobacco companies of colluding for five decades to hide the health hazards of smoking, marketing directly to teenagers and lying by suggesting the relative safety of "light" cigarettes. Defendants include Philip Morris USA, which controls about half of the U.S. tobacco market; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco; Loews Corp.'s Lorillard Tobacco; Brown and Williamson, which is part of British American Tobacco PLC; and the Vector Group's Liggett Group. All are being sued under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) act. The tobacco industry reached a $206 billion accord with several U.S. states in 1998. And Wells said that the industry has changed so much since then that it was "inappropriate to use the past" to make a judgment on its behavior now or in the future. "There has been such a profound change in the way tobacco companies communicate with the public about the risks of smoking that there is no likelihood of future RICO violations," Wells told the court. Wells argued that the government argument about fraud depends on the idea that tobacco companies are hiding facts from the public now, which he said is no longer true. Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2004

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