Tobacco companies in court for 'deceiving smokers'

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The Independent US

The federal government yesterday kicked off its $280bn (stg 157bn) case against the country's biggest tobacco companies, accusing the industry of working together for decades to deceive the public about the real dangers of smoking.

The federal government yesterday kicked off its $280bn (stg 157bn) case against the country's biggest tobacco companies, accusing the industry of working together for decades to deceive the public about the real dangers of smoking.

In his opening statement at what is the biggest and most ambitious civil racketeering trial in US history, Justice Department lawyer Frank Marine said the companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars to counter the growing scientific evidence that smoking was linked to cancer and other diseases.

"The problem for them was that the public might stop smoking for health reasons," Mr Marine said, referring to internal industry documents which he said showed that executives knew they were trying to deceive smokers.

The main defendants in the case are Philip Morris and its parent Altria Group, R.J. Reynolds, Brown and Williamson, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco, Lorillard and Ligget Myers, as well as the Council for Tobaccvo Research and the Tobacco Institute here.

The trial is the culmination of a case brought by the Clinton administration in 1999. It is expected to last some six months, barring an out of court settlement which observers expect once the Presidential election is over.

The companies adamantly deny the charges, which if upheld could see them forced to restitute $280bn of profits over the period. That burden could theoretically drive them out of business.

"Fraud is, 'I have a specific intention to mislead you or take money from you by deceiving you,'" William Ohlemeyer. a lawyer for Philip Morris said. "Fraud is a very high bar to clear."

In recent years, the tobacco industry has settled lawsuits with many individual states over smoking-related health care costs, for a total $246bn (stg 138bn). Those settlements also included curbs on cigarette advertising, and closed down lobbying and research groups set up by the industry.

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