Lawsuits Pose Tobacco's Toughest Test

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IN 40 years of fighting smoking-related lawsuits, the tobacco industry has never lost a fight in court. Now that record is facing its most formidable challenge yet.

Florida's decision this week to join a growing number of states suing cigarette companies poses an unusual test for the industry. Together with a nationwide class-action lawsuit filed last week, it will, at the least, open tobacco companies up to a discovery process that could determine whether they have known smoking is addictive, analysts say.

Minnesota, West Virginia, and Mississippi have filed similar suits against tobacco companies seeking to collect millions of dollars spent on health problems believed to be caused by smoking. The Florida case is unusual because of a law passed by the state legislature last year making it easier to sue companies. The law authorizes the state to file class-action lawsuits on behalf of Medicaid, holding tobacco companies individually and jointly liable for costs. The nation's two largest cigarette-makers, Philip Morris Inc. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, are seeking to block Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles's (D) legal action.

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Anti-tobacco advocates say the industry is vulnerable this time. In the past the industry won many cases by arguing that smokers took on the risks of smoking themselves. Those arguments may not stand when the interests of a state are involved, says Graham Kelder of the Tobacco Liability Project at the Northeastern University School of Law.

The industry sees the Florida action as unconstitutional because it unfairly singles out an industry for damages. Food and alcohol beverage firms may be vulnerable to such suits in the future, they say.

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