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SHARES of the tobacco company BAT were hit by concerns that the cigarette industry will face billions of dollars in damages claims, after a Miami jury decided that US companies must face actions from possibly hundreds of thousands of Floridans.

The verdict is the latest courtroom defeat for the US tobacco industry and highlights the mounting threat. The government is expected to file suit later this year to recoup money spent treating sick smokers.

The Florida case was the first class-action lawsuit to go to trial. Other attempts to group individual smokers' suits into a single class were denied in their early stages. The Florida case may eventually have its class- action status revoked as well.