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Ex-smoker savors tobacco win

On the south Georgia farm where Grady Carter approached manhood, the fields brimmed with cotton and peanuts, rice and vegetables. But no crop was bigger than tobacco.

Carter had grown tall enough to cut seeds off the tops of tobacco plants and strong enough to help with the rest of it _ shoving dirt around the freshly planted stems, picking horn worms off the leaves, filling the horse-drawn tobacco sled and guarding the family truck at auction until the harvest was sold.

Neither he nor his parents ever consumed the tobacco they grew. But when the horse doctor left a pack of Kools on a fence post one day, the curious boy smoked one. And when his uncles flicked their Prince Albert butts into the dirt, young Grady Carter waited until no one was looking and puffed those too.

By 1947, at age 17, he was smoking Lucky Strikes to keep up with his high school classmates in Jacksonville. He kept smoking for another 44 years.

Today, despite a lifetime of contributing to the tobacco industry, Carter, 71, has become a national icon for the anti-smoking movement.

After a bout with cancer that took one of his lungs and a personal epiphany that led him to sue the manufacturers of Lucky Strikes, he is the first individual to slip past Big Tobacco's mighty legal defenses and collect a judgment from a cigarette maker.

The outcome became official two weeks ago, although Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. of Louisville, Ky., sent him a $1.1-million check in March during the appeals process. The check covered $750,000 in damages that a Jacksonville jury awarded to Carter and his wife in 1996 _ plus interest. But Carter, who enjoyed an accomplished career as a federal air traffic control supervisor, says he has "no big plans" for his money and doesn't particularly need it.

He is free of cancer for now, and 90 percent of his medical costs were paid by his government health plan.

He and his wife, Millie, live in a comfortable two-story house in the Orange Park suburb of Jacksonville on a street with speed bumps and big yards and graceful trees. In the back is a pool and a garden where he tends to flowers, and a white gazebo where the couple took their wedding vows in 1983 with the understanding that Grady would soon quit his habit.

It would take him eight more years, he said in court documents that portray a household in despair. Millie, a non-smoker with allergies, would wake up at night coughing. Grady, feeling guilty, finally agreed not to smoke in the house or car.

He developed a smoker's cough that one day caused him to spill his coffee. One time when trying to quit cold turkey he got so angry with Millie she offered to go get him a pack.

The litany was proof of a horrible addiction, Carter said. But lawyers and doctors hired by Brown & Williamson said it showed weakness.

Grady Carter was a risk-taker, they said, a guy who wouldn't control his urges despite the known dangers. He rode a Kawasaki motorcycle on Sundays. He flew a small airplane. He ate Oreos after doctors told him to cut his cholesterol.

One day, a tobacco lawyer pressed him.

Admit it. You just didn't want to stop. You enjoyed it.

Not exactly, the plaintiff said. "I did not enjoy the feeling of not smoking."

Carter, who still chews Nicorette gum to fight off nicotine urges, says the addiction will always be with him.

The precise moment of his victory passed quietly on June 29 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Brown & Williamson's appeal. There was none of the breathless media coverage that accompanied the 1996 verdict _ an event that sent tobacco stocks tumbling and made Grady Carter a celebrity.

Carter filed the lawsuit after watching tobacco executives tell Congress their product was not addictive. It alleged the makers of Lucky Strikes knew the dangers of tobacco in the 1940s when Carter says he became hopelessly addicted. It said the company should have warned the public before the government ordered warnings on cigarette packs in 1964.

The judgment was overturned by a Florida appeals court in 1998, then reinstated in November by the Florida Supreme Court. When the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take the case, Carter officially became the first individual plaintiff in 40 years of tobacco litigation to claim a complete victory against Big Tobacco.

Some high-profile tobacco cases, including the record $145-billion verdict won last year by Florida smokers in a class-action lawsuit, remain on appeal, and others have gone in Big Tobacco's favor.

Carter's lawsuit was "a major breakthrough case," said John Banzhaf, a law professor and executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, the nation's oldest anti-smoking group. "Contrary to what many had believed, it didn't take a super giant law firm and a super giant case to beat the tobacco industry."

Carter readily addresses the criticism of those who wonder where personal responsibility begins for someone who smoked so long and disregarded the risks.

"The first thing I said when I got on the witness stand was that I accept my responsibility," he said. "I bought their product and I smoked their product for all those years. . . . However, it's time they admitted their responsibility."

It was not the ideal product liability case. There was no dying victim asking for pity. Just a healthy Grady Carter asking someone to share the blame.

The public remained divided.

One prospective juror said she and her husband quit on a bet with no problem after 20 years of smoking Lucky Strikes. But another was upset with Big Tobacco, having lost several smoking relatives to cancer.

Four of the six jurors had never smoked. One was a heavy smoker. And one, the foreman, had quit with ease but knew others had trouble.

Through most of his FAA career, Carter stayed loyal to the brand with the distinctive bull's-eye label, smoking up to two packs of Luckies a day. But when government warnings became louder in the 1960s, he began to struggle.

He grew disgusted with the overflowing ash trays, the smell of his car, the holes in his clothes. He tried to stop an estimated 100 times. He experimented with filters and low-tar brands.

By the time he quit for good in 1991, snuffing out a Parliament on his back porch, it was too late. Three days later, he coughed up blood and soon was diagnosed with lung cancer.

At the trial, his Jacksonville lawyers, Norwood "Woody" Wilner and Greg Maxwell, hauled out Lucky Strike ads from the 1930s and '40s when Carter was growing up.

In one, a doctor claims, "20,679 physicians say Luckies are less irritating." The ad said Luckies offered "throat protection."

Also, it was the first time a lone plaintiff showed jurors a controversial set of internal Brown & Williamson documents that were stolen in 1994 by a company paralegal and widely distributed.

In one 1963 memo, a company vice president discusses ways to counter the Surgeon General's upcoming report. Twice he states nicotine is addictive. He says the company should offer a cigarette that filters out harmful smoke but nevertheless carries "a nice jolt of nicotine."

Brown & Williamson lawyer Bruce Sheffler told jurors the words were "musings" of someone who was no expert on addiction. He added no product warning was going to change Grady Carter's behavior because he had long ignored the more compelling pleas of his wife, his son and his doctors.

In the 1940s, when Carter began smoking, scientists were still debating whether the habit was harmful, Sheffler said, and the tobacco companies knew relatively little about the dangers _ a point vigorously disputed by Wilner and others.

Carter could have heeded the many warnings that were widely reported in the media, Sheffler added. The verdict rejecting his arguments came after nearly 10 hours of deliberation.

For now, the impact of the case remains uncertain. Carter's victory emboldened hundreds of smokers to sue, but the success rate has been limited. Wilner's next two cases against cigarette companies were losses, followed by a victory that may have to be retried.

"The handful of cigarette trials that we've had in this country have been so few that it's pointless to try and draw generalizations," Wilner said.

Brown & Williamson spokesman Mark Smith said the company remains confident about defending similar cases in the future.

Carter still smiles at Smith's words last spring after the company sent him his check.

"Our suggestion to Mr. Wilner is don't go out and spend the money," the company spokesman said confidently.

Chuckled Carter: "Brown & Williamson told me a lot of things that weren't true."