All companies now under siege in US

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The once-invulnerable tobacco industry is under siege in the United States in the wake of admissions by the Liggett Group, that smoking can be lethal and that it has marketed cigarettes to children.

David Kessler, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration, turned the spotlight yesterday on the practice of luring children into the nicotine habit. California, meanwhile, unveiled a $22m (pounds 13.6m) television and billboard advertising campaign that aims to villify the cigarette companies.

Now cast as the turncoat of his own industry, Bennett LeBow, the owner of Liggett, was expected to release a personal statement acknowledging past sales efforts aimed at children and pledging to end the policy. "Liggett condemns this practice and will not market to children," a draft of it said.

Mr LeBow's statement will serve as a dramatic personal postscript to Liggett's historic decision on Thursday to settle with the 22 US states that are suing the entire industry for billions of dollars in damages for the cost to taxpayers of treating victims of smoking-related diseases.

A court hearing is set for 31 March for the other four main tobacco companies to seek to prevent Liggett from handing over potentially explosive documents to help the states pursue their lawsuits. The documents threaten to demonstrate that the companies colluded over three decades to cover up what they knew about the addictive and medically-damaging nature of cigarettes.

Liggett has already released to the media some excerpts which it believes are not subject to any court restraining order.

One 1966 document debates witholding information about the cancer risks. "How far would publication affect the likelihood of proceedings being instituted?" it begins. "In the short term it is obvious that non-publication of the report could have no practical effect unless and until it became know that the [cancer] data were available but had not been published"

Mr Kessler, who until his recent resignation drove efforts by the US government to subject cigarette sales to strict controls, predicted widespread public disgust with the revelations now being made by Liggett.

"For one of the major tobacco companies to admit that they marketed to children, that's striking," he said yesterday. "I think it will make the average person just angry.

Brown & Williamson, the number-three producer in the US and a subsidiary of London-based British American Tobacco, is joining with Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco to try to minimise the damage from the Liggett move. The credibility of Liggett will be attacked because the company joined the whole industry in telling Congress in 1993 that cigarettes were not addictive.

"It does not take a rocket scientist to to see that testimony offered for the first time as part of a settlement arrangement will have a credibility problem," claimed David Bernick, a lawyer representing Brown & Williamson.