Cigarette Makers Acknowledge Risk

Wednesday, May 24th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MIAMI (AP) — Three years ago, the nation's five largest cigarette companies stood as one, saying there was no proof that smoking caused disease.

Liggett was the first to break ranks, in 1997. On Tuesday, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard also acknowledged smoking's link to health problems as the companies fight a potentially crippling court case.

That leaves industry leader Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds on the other side of an issue that once united a monolithic industry.

The splintered positions were offered in opening statements by tobacco attorneys trying to avoid a multibillion-dollar award to 300,000 to 500,000 sick Florida smokers.

The jury already has ruled against the industry twice, saying the companies conspired to produce a deadly product and awarding $12.7 million in compensatory damages to three representative smokers with cancer. Testimony from public health officials was to begin today.

Cigarette makers want the jury to award no punitive damages, arguing that $254 billion from settlements with the states is enough money to pay for decades of misconduct. The lawsuit seeks $100 billion in damages, though the smokers' attorney has not specified an amount.

``We agree with the public health authorities and the surgeon general that smoking causes disease,'' Lorillard attorney Ken Reilly told the jury. ``I don't know how more flatly that can be stated.''

Brown & Williamson attorney Gordon Smith followed by saying chief executive Nicholas Brookes ``will tell you it is and has been Brown & Williamson's position that smoking causes cancer. There is no confusion about that whatsoever.''

Such blanket acknowledgments do not amount to acceptance of blame, however. If tobacco executives concede smoking causes disease, they generally say it can't be proven in any given smoker because of individual risk factors.

The Reynolds position in the punitive phase was uncertain. Attorney Jim Johnson focused on company finances and did not address the issue of smoking and disease in his initial remarks.

In a deposition May 10, Philip Morris CEO Michael Szymanczyk said the company has not adopted the position of public health officials that smoking causes cancer and is addictive, though it displays those messages on its Web site.

In 1997, Liggett owner Bennett LeBow became the first tobacco executive to say smoking causes disease and is addictive.

``Liggett's conduct has served as a model for how a tobacco company should conduct itself in today's world,'' said Liggett attorney Aaron Marks, predicting the company's cigarette business will die in 20 years.


On the Net:

Tobacco links:

Philip Morris:

R.J. Reynolds:

Brown & Williamson:

American Lung Association:

Action on Smoking and Health:

Tobacco Products Liability Project: