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Jurors are asked to evaluate change in tobacco industry

A jury that could award billions of dollars to 300,000 to 500,000 sick Florida smokers was asked Monday to consider whether cigarette makers continue to misbehave or whether they have learned their lesson and changed.

"They're on the same page they always were on," Stanley Rosenblatt, the attorney seeking punitive damages for smokers, said in opening statements. "These defendants most assuredly have not truly changed."

But lead tobacco attorney Dan Webb promised "significant and compelling evidence" that tobacco companies conduct business differently today from their practices in recent years.

The same jury already has ruled that cigarettes are a deadly, addictive and defective product and awarded $12.7-million in compensatory damages to three people representing sick Florida smokers in the class action case.

The lawsuit, filed in 1994, lists a $100-billion request, but Rosenblatt completed his remarks without suggesting an amount. He did note that the industry committed to a $368-billion congressional settlement that died in 1997 and has not yet paid "10 cents" to a smoker in a lawsuit.

Slapping himself on the wrist as a sign of what cigarette makers want, Rosenblatt predicted the defendants would say, "We've become good boys and girls and we've learned our lesson."

But the industry has simply adopted "a new public relations strategy to create the appearance of change rather than the reality or substance," he said.

Webb said that smokers should receive nothing, because the nation's five biggest cigarette makers claiming 99 percent of the U.S. market are committed to paying $254-billion in settlements with states over 25 years.

"As far as the tobacco companies, the world has not stood still while you have been sitting as jurors," Webb said. "These tobacco companies have experienced enormous changes that you would have no way to know about."

He told jurors, who have been told to avoid news coverage of the industry since they began hearing the case late in 1998, about spending on anti-smoking youth marketing programs and billboard removals as examples of restrictions in the state settlements.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected the industry's attempt to eject Circuit Judge Robert Kaye from presiding over the trial.

Cigarette makers complained that Kaye, who has presided over the lawsuit since 1998, is an ex-smoker with a heart ailment who is covered by the lawsuit and could share in any award.

The court tossed out the complaint without comment, upholding a Florida appeals court that had earlier rejected the attempt to have Kaye disqualified.

The defendants are R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Philip Morris, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Lorillard Tobacco Co., Liggett Group Inc., the Council for Tobacco Research and the Tobacco Institute.