Tobacco barons get set for pounds 300bn battle

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The Independent Online
THE AMERICAN tobacco industry, already battered by a torrent of litigation in courts around the country, is bracing itself for the start in Miami tomorrow of a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of all smokers in Florida who are suffering from diseases related to their use of cigarettes.

The defendants in the case, which could become a turning point in the industry's fortunes, include Brown & Williamson, a subsidiary of London- based British American Tobacco (BAT). Also on trial are Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro cigarettes, and RJ Reynolds.

It is the first ever class action against the industry to make it to trial in the US and the stakes could hardly be higher. If found guilty, the companies could be obliged to pay out damages totalling no less than $500bn (around pounds 300bn). It took lawyers from both sides 16 weeks to select the jury members, amongst whom there is one smoker and three former smokers.

Lawyers fighting the case estimate there are up to one million smokers or ex-smokers in Florida who have smoking-related illnesses, ranging from cancer to emphysema and heart disease. Known as the Sunshine State, Florida is heavily populated by retirees, many in uncertain health. If a guilty verdict were to be delivered, the damages, after payment of lawyers' fees, would be distributed amongst all of them.

The tobacco trial is certain to last several months. Lawyers for the plaintiffs are expected to kick off with a series of expert witnesses including leading doctors as well as former US Surgeons General. The kernel of their case will be the allegation that the industry deliberately deceived consumers about the health risks of smoking by holding back information.

The industry will counter that smokers have long been perfectly aware of the hazards of smoking and bear responsibility themselves for choosing to ignore them and continue to smoke anyway. That, however, ignores arguments over addiction and whether or not people can stop smoking once hooked.

Robert Heim, a lead lawyer for Philip Morris, insisted to reporters last week: "More than 40 million people have quit over the past 30 years. People have been generally aware of the health risk of smoking from the turn of the century, or even earlier."

On Friday, Judge Robert Kaye, who will preside over the trial, issued a gag order, barring lawyers from either side from talking to reporters during the trial. He made the instruction after summoning both camps to his chambers just minutes before Philip Morris lawyers were due to hold a press conference.

Part of the difficulty in choosing jurists had to do with aggressive anti-smoking advertising, both on billboards and on television, that have recently blossomed in Florida. Lawyers for the companies complained especially about one advertisement depicting a mock awards ceremony for the best all-round killer, where the tobacco industry is put alongside Adolf Hitler as a possible winner.

The defendants worry that jury members will have been tainted by such campaigns. "These ads are designed to tell the world what murderers the tobacco industry is," said Joseph Moody, another of the defence lawyers. "They are taking away our right to have a fair trial."