Tobacco giant goes on trial in US

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The Independent Online
The tobacco industry is bracing itself for the start in a Florida courtroom today of a lawsuit brought by the estate of a dead smoker against RJ Reynolds, America's number two cigarette manufacturer, that promises to visit more turmoil on the sector and further batter stocks on both sides of the Atlantic.

The jury will hear the story of Jean Connor, who started smoking at the age of 15 and died of lung cancer in 1995 at 49. The area of contention is simple: is RJ Reynolds responsible for the habit that killed Ms Connor and did it knowingly withhold from her information about the risks of smoking?

Anxiety is running especially high ahead of the case. It represents the first of a whole queue of lawsuits that are set for trial this year. It also comes in the wake of last month's startling confession by the Liggett Group, the smallest of the US tobacco companies, that smoking is indeed potentially lethal and that the company had been deliberately marketing cigarettes to minors.

Most important, however, is the identity of the lawyer who will represent the estate of Ms Connor. He is Norwood "Woody" Wilner, a flamboyant Florida trial lawyer who last August won $750,000 (pounds 459,000) in damages for an ex-smoker and his wife against Brown & Williamson, the US subsidiary of London-based British American Tobacco (BAT).

Mr Wilner's success last time round stunned an industry which in 40 years has never had to pay a cent of damages. Tobacco stocks reeled on the decision. He will be arguing for the Connor estate in the same small courtroom in Jacksonville, Florida.

In several regards, Mr Wilner may have a harder job with this case. Last time, his client's cancer had gone into remission and he was able to tell his own story in person to the jury. Now, Mr Wilner has only a video tape made by Ms Connor before her death.

The Liggett action may also have only limited bearing on the case. In reaching a settlement with 22 US states that are suing the industry to recover $30bn in medical costs spent on treating smoking-related ailments, Liggett agreed to hand over industry documents to assist in the pursuit of the other companies. Those documents are expected to contain embarrassing and incriminating information.

But Mr Wilner will not be able to use these papers. Even so, the bad publicity - from the perspective of the tobacco industry - generated by Liggett's confessions is likely to assist Mr Wilner with the jury.

Mr Wilner's fame for anti-tobacco polemics in the courtroom almost guarantees that the proceedings themselves - even before the final judgment is read - are likely to bring further harm to the cigarette companies. Arguments are likely to start in a few days, once jury selection is completed, and the whole trial is expected to wrap up before the end of the month.

Meanwhile, an anti-smoking group is to announce a national advertising campaign today to put pressure on the US Congress to hold new hearings into the tobacco companies. It wants to highlight the testimony of company executives to Congress in 1993 when they said, under oath, that cigarettes were not addictive.

California, in the meantime, has unveiled a $22m anti-smoking advertising blitz.

One radio spot aims to ridicule teenagers who smoke. "Your ignorance is astounding, and should be applauded," a male voice intones.

"We, the tobacco conglomerates of America, owe a debt of gratitude to all teens for their continued support of our products despite the unfortunate disease and death they cause."