Smoking is addictive, causes cancer, says No. 5 tobacco firm, settling suits Liggett's admission completes defection begun a year ago

March 21, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writers Sean Somerville and Peter Jensen contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Admitting what the cigarette industry has steadfastly denied for decades, one of the top five tobacco companies said flatly yesterday that smoking causes cancer and other diseases, and is addictive. That admission was part of a deal that Liggett Group, the smallest of the big five and maker of Chesterfield cigarettes, reached with 22 states -- including Maryland -- to spare the company the risk of losing in the multibillion-dollar wave of state lawsuits now pending against the industry.

In the settlement, Liggett promised to disclose thousands of pages of documents detailing 30 years of private discussions among industry executives and lawyers which supposedly prove what Liggett conceded in a public statement yesterday.

"This is the beginning of the end of this conspiracy of lies," Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods said at a news conference here. "Today, for the first time, one of the five is prepared to break this conspiracy."

Philip Morris U.S.A., the largest tobacco company, denounced the deal, and said it "has nothing to do with the rest of the industry" and "changes nothing."

The documents being disclosed could help prove the court claims of the 22 states that the industry is to blame for smoking-related diseases, and that it actively recruited teen-agers to become smokers. Liggett agreed to help every one of the 22 attorneys general fight the other industry firms in court.

"A significant part of our case has been strengthened today," said Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. at a news conference in Baltimore.

Proves Maryland's claims

The settlement, he said, proves the claims Maryland is making in a lawsuit filed 10 months ago seeking $3 billion for the state's past Medicaid costs of treating sick smokers and $10 billion in punitive damages.

The settlement yesterday does not directly affect about 200 still-pending smokers' lawsuits against the cigarette makers in state courts, including one in Maryland. But the Liggett documents are likely to find their way into those cases, too.

Potentially, the documents could figure in the Justice Department's criminal investigation of testimony industry executives gave to Congress denying that cigarettes are addictive and that they cause cancer, heart disease and emphysema.

"On the basis of these documents, tobacco company executives could go to jail," Florida Attorney General Robert Butterworth told reporters here.

Liggett also promised to put "smoking is addictive" labels on all its tobacco products and advertising.

The company said the industry has specifically targeted minors as its customers. And Liggett said it would not fight the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's regulations to stop the industry from selling tobacco to youths under age 18.

And, Liggett agreed to give the states 25 percent of its pretax profits for the next 25 years. If, during that time, it merges with another company, Liggett will pay the states a $25 million lump sum.

'Extremely damaging' data

Some of the documents Liggett is disclosing already have been seen by state attorneys general, said Woods of Arizona, and they contain "extremely damaging" information about the industry's awareness of the health hazards of smoking. He said he has been told they "are evidence of crime and fraud."

Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore said Liggett already had flagged 25 to 30 specific documents that, he said, "are the most incriminating documents in the history of tobacco litigation."

This marked the second time in a year that Liggett broke the solid phalanx that the industry had maintained for 40 years to fend off its critics and challengers.

Last March, the company made a deal to settle a huge smokers' lawsuit against the industry and made another deal -- much less sweeping in scope -- with five of the states that have sued the manufacturers.

'Complete sham'

Philip Morris ridiculed the new settlement as it did the one a year ago, which it called "a complete sham."

Vowing to fight on in court against the states and others who have sued, the industry giant said it was still interested in "a comprehensive legislative solution to smoking and health claims" against the manufacturers.

Philip Morris and the three other major tobacco companies rushed into a North Carolina state court yesterday and got a temporary order barring Liggett and its parent, Brooke Group, from disclosing to anyone other than the judge any documents about private lawyers' discussions of industry strategy.

Internal Liggett discussions

Attorneys General Woods and Moore, however, interpreted the order as meaning only that Liggett cannot do anything illegal with the documents. The states' lawyers will look only at documents that involve internal Liggett discussions, unless they get permission from a judge to examine others.

Both Woods and Moore said, however, that all of the documents that Liggett will turn loose for potential use by the states were already on their way yesterday to courthouses nationwide.

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