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Tobacco, state trade barbs at talks

Lawyers for the tobacco industry and the state of Florida traded charges of deception and extortion Wednesday, then opened the nation's first talks on settling a Medicaid-reimbursement lawsuit.

Moments before court-ordered mediation began on the public cost of smoking-related illnesses, industry attorney Keith Teel firmly delivered the tobacco line to Gov. Lawton Chiles, state Attorney General Bob Butterworth and the news media.

"There is no reason why the tobacco industry should pay Florida any damages," Teel said. "We will not be intimidated by these outrageous attempts at politically correct extortion."

Butterworth predicted that would change.

"Someday, whether it be today, whether it be tomorrow, tobacco is going to have to atone for the damages they have caused," he said. "I don't believe the industry can withstand this current much longer."

Butterworth argued that consumers have been promised a natural, safe product that gives pleasure but that 420,000 deceived smokers die a year from cancer, lung disease, heart disease and other smoking-related illnesses.

The barbs were traded just before the mediation group entered a 75-seat ballroom for talks that by state law are secret.

Public posturing is common before mediation, and court-appointed mediator David Strawn glossed over the opening rhetoric.

"Obviously both sides have very strong beliefs about their position and published their beliefs," he said after the morning session. "Settlement is always possible."

Not necessarily in this case. The parties are present because they have to be under a court order.

Ten states have sued tobacco companies and a dozen more are preparing suits to recover the medical bills of sick smokers.

Chiles stressed Wednesday morning that the state is demanding $1-billion plus a change in advertising that he thinks is targeting children.

Teel said the only common ground with the state was "keeping tobacco products away from kids." But he suggested the answer was additional state spending on enforcement.

The first skirmish of the day was over allowing Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, who filed the first suit by a state, to participate on Florida's side. Teel objected to his presence, saying it would be equivalent to admitting the news media and other third parties.

Talks were expected to last at least through Friday, when the two sides are to decide whether to continue.

During the talks, smokers must go outside, either to a handy atrium or the lushly landscaped grounds of the PGA National golf resort.

Eight side rooms have been reserved for smaller discussions, while the main talks are in a room called Fairway One.