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Disease link admissions grow

Two cigarette makers join Liggett in admitting to jurors Tuesday that smoking harms health.

Three of five cigarette makers fighting punitive damages for smokers acknowledged to jurors Tuesday that smoking causes disease, exposing a rift within the industry.

Attorneys for Brown & Williamson and Lorillard promised testimony from their CEOs on the long-disputed issue of causation, joining Liggett, which accepted the connection three years ago.

That leaves Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds behind on an issue that once united the industry.

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

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

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

Brown & Williamson attorney Gordon Smith added that company CEO 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."

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.

Liggett owner Bennett LeBow broke ranks in 1996 and agreed with four states to restrict youth marketing. LeBow followed with admissions in 1997 that 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.

The nation's five biggest cigarette makers want the jury to award no punitive damages, arguing that $254-billion owed on state settlements is enough money to pay for decades of misconduct. The lawsuit seeks $100-billion in damages, but smokers' attorney Stanley Rosenblatt did not specify an amount in his remarks Monday.

The jury already has ruled against the industry twice, saying companies conspired to produce a deadly product and awarding $12.7-million in compensatory damages to three representative smokers with cancer.

If the jury decides to impose punitive damages, the companies want to limit their financial exposure. Brown & Williamson pointed to low profit margins on its leading brand, GPC discount cigarettes. Reilly said Liggett has an "uncertain financial future."

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

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