Hundreds of documents that mysteriously found their way to a scientist last year wound up this weekend on the Internet: the cap to a bitter legal bout between a professor and the cigarette industry.
The purloined papers, disclosing the health and addictive consequences of smoking, became available to computer users worldwide after Thursday's victory by the University of California at San Francisco before the state Supreme Court.
"I'm not a hyper Internet geek," said Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at UCSF and a tobacco industry foe. "But the beauty of it is you put information out there, and it is available for people who want it."
Last year, a Federal Express crate of documents _ about 8,000 pages _ appeared at Glantz' campus office, the sender identified as "Mr. Butts."
Glantz, who specializes in tobacco, heart function and biostatistics, spent subsequent months fighting to share the cache with the general public.
On Saturday, about 70 Internet users an hour searched through the initial release of records, UCSF library technicians said. This summer, the technicians will scan all the documents electronically into the computer network.
"The (documents) show that 30 years ago the tobacco industry knew (nicotine) was an addictive substance, that it caused cancer and this information was withheld from the public," Glantz said. "They had a very sophisticated understanding of (cigarettes). Now people can make their own judgments."
Tobacco giant Brown & Williamson, furious at what it claimed was the theft of internal papers in 1989 by a paralegal, waged a vigorous legal fight to keep the records secret.
But the state Supreme Court refused to block their release.
A spokesman for the 102-year-old Kentucky-based company voiced indignation at the Internet release, contending that Glantz and others were, in effect, laundering stolen records.
"This isn't an issue of First Amendment freedoms," said Joe Helewicz, vice president of corporate relations for the nation's third-largest tobacco firm, which produces such brands as Lucky Strike, Kool, Capri and Pall Mall.
"It's not public interest they have in mind," Helewicz said. "They are being put out there totally without context. . . . Those documents are stolen, they are privileged, they are not in the public domain."
After initially getting the documents, Glantz had them transferred to UC's library as part of an archive collection on tobacco.
Brown & Williamson went to court demanding their return.
In a February Superior Court hearing, the university was permitted to keep the papers but was ordered to put them in a vault with access limited to lawyers for both sides in the dispute.
But last month a Superior Court judge ruled the university could make the documents public. The tobacco firm appealed.
Some of the records _ dating back three decades _ reveal cigarettemakers' knowledge of smoking dangers. Research delved into such aspects of smoking as heart rates, "the fate of nicotine in the body" and the effects of nicotine on squirrel monkeys.
Documents are on the World Wide Web at http://www.library.ucsf.edu/tobacco.