USA

A steep drop in gasoline prices contributed to the largest one- month decline in consumer prices in more than a half- century, the Labor Department reported Thursday. The Consumer Price Index fell 0.6 percent last month, the most since a 0.9 percent fall in July 1949. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Board reported that industrial production registered a solid 0.7 percent gain in November after rising 1.3 percent in October.

The Illinois Supreme Court threw out a $10 billion class- action lawsuit against Altria Group Inc.'s Philip Morris USA Thursday, ruling that the maker of Marlboros and other brands did not defraud customers in its marketing of "light" cigarettes. A divided court ruled that the Federal Trade Commission specifically allowed companies to characterize their cigarettes as "light" and "low tar."

Gov. Mitt Romney (R) of Massachusetts ruled out a run for reelection next year, fueling speculation that the son of onetime Michigan Gov. George Romney will toss his hat in the presidential ring, as his father did in 1968. He declined to declare himself a candidate, but has made several trips to the primary battleground states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Romney's decision could pave the way for his 2002 running mate, Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, to raise her political profile.

Former Sen. William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin, who died Thursday in Sykesville, Md., was known as a political maverick over his almost 30 years in Congress. His monthly "Golden Fleece" awards, begun in 1975, targeted what he considered frivolous uses of taxpayer dollars.

Scientists said they're keeping a close eye on Alaska's 4,134- foot Augustine Volcano, which is showing signs that it could erupt in the next few months. Hundreds of miniature earthquakes have been recorded at Augustine, which lasted erupted in 1986.

Lance Armstrong, a seven-time Tour de France champion, was ordered to stand trial March 7 in Italy on charges of defaming fellow cyclist Filippo Simeoni. Armstrong allegedly called Simeoni a liar for saying a physician had advised Simeoni to use drugs viewed as performance- enhancing.

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