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Governor Bush blocks lawyers' payments in Texan tobacco lawsuit

The Governor of the state of Texas, George Bush, has asked the US federal courts to block the payment to the lawyers involved in the lawsuit against the tobacco industry - estimated at more than $100,000 an hour.

The cigarette manufacturers last month agreed to shell out $15.3bn (pounds 9.4bn) in damages in a settlement to cover the costs of treating Texans with smoking-related diseases. The fees paid to the lawyers who represented the state worked out at $2.3bn. According to the Houston Chronicle, assuming the five lawyers involved worked 40 hours a week for 18 months, then their hourly rate was an astounding $105,022.

His action has infuriated Texas' Attorney-general, Dan Morales, who warns the entire deal could be jeopardised.

But Mr Bush, the son for the former president, knows that his manoeuvre is bound to please taxpayers and voters. The Governor faces re-election this year and is known to have his eye on a White House run in 2000.

Similar struggles are under way in Florida, where a group of lawyers is attempting to collect a 25 per cent fee for a $11.3bn tobacco settlement reached there last year, or a total of $2.87bn. Indeed the two sets of fees, in Texas and Florida, would be the largest ever in US litigation history.

If Governor Bush's intervention succeeds, it could have implications beyond Texas. Most importantly, it could partially reign in the appetite of the myriad lawyers and lobbyists lining up in Washington where the US Congress is expected later this year to legislate on the $368.5bn national tobacco settlement that was putatively agreed last year.

Indeed, several bills have been tabled by members of Congress asking that hourly rates of between $150 and $250 be imposed on all lawyers involved in turning the settlement into federal law.

Meanwhile, clouds were forming on the horizon of the US cigar industry. Cigar-makers have generally eluded government notice or supervision. Now the Federal Trade Commission is training its sights on cigars, in response to the sudden growth in their popularity. Cigar consumption in the US has grown by 53 per cent since 1993.