News In Brief

Jurors in Florida's landmark tobacco class-action case were asked to hand US cigarette-makers a record-shattering $154 billion verdict, as closing arguments began in the trial's punitive-damages phase. A plaintiffs' attorney told the Miami jury the amount was an "appropriate" punishment for the harm done by tobacco companies to almost 700,000 Florida residents. In the trial's second phase in April, jurors ruled that three individuals were entitled to $12.7 million in compensatory damages. Lawyers for the five cigarette-makers on trial were to begin closing statements today; jury deliberations could start later this week.

The House voted overwhelmingly to prevent the Food and Drug Administration from enforcing an importation ban on the purchase of prescription drugs in Canada, Mexico, and other countries, so long as the drugs are for personal use. The 363-to-12 decision comes as an increasing number of Americans have been traveling to such countries to purchase prescription drugs for much cheaper than what they cost in the US.

A federal jury listened to government surveillance tapes that purportedly reveal Branch Davidians talking about setting fires minutes before their Waco, Texas, compound erupted in flames in 1993. The tapes were part of the government's defense in the fourth week of a $665 million lawsuit trial in which surviving Branch Davidians charge federal agents were responsible for the deaths of 80 sect members when the compound burned. "We need fuel" and "Pour it?" were among phrases heard on the tape. Plaintiffs have argued that the FBI caused the fires with a tear-gas-and-tank assault on the compound after a 51-day siege.

An unreleased audit report says cost overruns on Boston's Central Artery project or "Big Dig" have ballooned to $2.2 billion, pushing the estimated price tag of the project up to $14 billion and possibly beyond, published reports said. The estimated overruns for the Big Dig - the most expensive public-works project in US history - move the project's budget about $400 million higher than the most recent official estimates. If the overruns exceed $2 billion, the state Legislature's bailout package might not be enough, Boston papers reported.

Removing a key obstacle to Environmental Protection Agency plans to regulate mercury from power plants, a panel of scientists concluded the agency was justified in setting stringent levels of protection from the toxic substance. The EPA's plans to regulate mercury emissions has been held up because Congress barred it from proceeding until the study was completed. The report concludes that methyl-mercury "is widespread and persistent in the environment" and that the guidelines used by the EPA to establish maximum exposure levels are "scientifically justifiable."

The Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit against Toysmart.com, accusing the bankrupt online toy-seller of breaking a promise to customers that it would never share private information about them. In its complaint, the FTC said Toysmart is violating its assurances that consumer data "will never be shared with a third party." Toysmart, majority-owned by Walt Disney Co., solicited bids for its assets, including customer lists. But Web privacy activists claimed if sales were allowed, it could encourage other failing dotcoms to abandon privacy assurances for cash.

Federal drug-policy makers who sparked protests after trying to sprinkle antidrug messages into the nation's TV shows plan to expand the campaign to Hollywood, the Los Angeles Times reported. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, was to announce a plan to work more closely with major studios, writers, and directors to promote films that communicate an antidrug message, the paper said.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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