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Thursday, 26 April, 2001, 05:32 GMT 06:32 UK
US may abandon tobacco lawsuit
A man smokes a cigarette
Money is critical for the case to proceed
By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in Washington

Lawyers at the US Justice Department have warned that they might be forced to abandon a lawsuit against the tobacco industry unless they receive millions more than is proposed by President George W Bush.

John Ashcroft
Attorney General John Ashcroft was a vocal critic of the suit when he served in the Senate
In a letter to the Attorney-General John Ashcroft, published in The Washington Post newspaper, officials said they needed nearly $60m to fight the case, but had been given less than $2m.

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit two years ago accusing the big tobacco companies concealing information showing that smoking can be harmful.

The lawsuit is entering a critical phase, and the memo said without more funds than presently proposed that they would not be able to continue pursuing the case and that a settlement was unlikely.

Tobacco foes urge action

Mr Ashcroft said during his confirmation hearings that he had "no predisposition to dismiss" the lawsuit and that he would review the facts of the case before deciding how to proceed.

Tobacco foes say that time as well as money is critical if the suit is to continue.

William V. Corr, executive vice president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said: "The memo makes it clear that if this review continues much longer, it will have the effect of killing the lawsuit by denying the department's lawyers the funding they need to continue the litigation.

"No decision is a decision to stop the lawsuit."
Cigarette packs
The government sought to regain money from the costs of providing healthcare to sick smokers

The Justice Department alleges that cigarette companies have conspired to defraud and mislead the American people since the 1950s.

The suit named Philip Morris Inc.; Philip Morris Companies; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.; American Tobacco Co.; Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. Inc.; Liggett and Myers Inc.; The Council for Tobacco Research U.S.A. Inc. and the Tobacco Institute Inc.

The government sought $100bn in damages for the healthcare costs of smoking-related illness.

Tobacco wins partial victory

But the suit has faced obstacles both in the courts and in Congress.

A judge threw out a large part of the suit last autumn saying that the government had based part of its case on the flawed interpretation of two federal laws.

But the judge ruled the government could not use medical-care cost recovery laws to recoup the costs of treatment due to the tobacco-related illnesses.

The government estimated that it has spent $20bn annually for the last 40 years on smoking-relating costs.

But it was not a complete victory for the tobacco industry that had asked the judge to throw out the entire case.

The judge said "a significant portion of the government's case" could proceed under federal racketeering law and that the tobacco industry could still be liable for billions of dollars.

Controversy in Congress

Justice Department officials would not say whether Mr Ashcroft will push for the funding the Tobacco Litigation Team has requested.

However, Mr Ashcroft was a vocal critic of the suit when he served in the US Senate.

And he was not the only opponent of the litigation in Congress.

Last year, Congress agreed - under pressure from then President Clinton and anti-tobacco campaigners - to fund the suit with $12m that was originally intended for other government agencies.

And Mr DuBray said that if history is indication, this Congress would not support a budget line-item for specifically funding the suit.

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