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Wednesday, 20 June, 2001, 19:41 GMT 20:41 UK
US seeks tobacco settlement
Man smoking
The government wants money for treating sick smokers
By BBC NewsOnline's Kevin Anderson in Washington

US Attorney General John Ashcroft told members of Congress that the Bush Administration will seek a settlement in the federal government's lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

Mr Ashcroft told Congress that he had created a team of lawyers to explore the possibility of a settlement.

The Clinton administration filed the lawsuit in September 1999 seeking to recoup more than $20bn the government has spent in healthcare costs treating sick smokers.

But talks of a settlement were met with a mixed reaction from lawmakers, health advocates and tobacco companies.

Shift in policy

Talk of a settlement marks a shift in policy from the Clinton administration, which vigorously supported the case.

Mr Ashcroft opposed the lawsuit when he was a senator from the state of Missouri, and President Bush questioned it during his election campaign last year.

US Attorney-General John Ashcroft
The Attorney-General said the government would pursue the case as well as a settlement
Department of Justice officials said the government would continue to pursue the case as it explores a settlement.

The government suffered a setback last year when a US district judge dismissed two counts of its case. The Justice Department is appealing the ruling.

Officials said that administration feared that the case would be weakened further this summer making a favourable settlement less likely.

Action

Health advocates and anti-tobacco campaigners urged the Bush administration not to seek a weak settlement but pursue the case instead. They said that talks of settlement were a payback to the tobacco industry for campaign contributions.

John Garrison, Chief Executive Officer of the American Lung Association, said: "The Bush Administration should not let Big Tobacco off the hook."

Mr Garrison urged the administration not to consider granting the tobacco industry immunity or limits on liability.

Cigarettes
Health advocates accuse the government of a political payback
"Despite millions in campaign contributions, the tobacco industry does not deserve a pardon," he said.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids decried settlement efforts as a sweetheart deal for the tobacco industry.

"The American people should be concerned that the administration is seeking yet another way to let the tobacco industry off the hook for decades of deception and wrongdoing," its president, Matthew Myers, said.

He echoed some legal scholars' concerns that the talk of a settlement will weaken the government's position.

"No attorney representing a client in good faith prepares for trial by saying they expect to lose, and this statement is a tremendous disservice to the government's client - the American people," Mr Myers said.

Off guard

The suit is against Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., American Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Lorillard, British American Tobacco Ltd., Liggett and Myers Inc., the Council for Tobacco Research-USA and the Tobacco Institute.

The tobacco industry says it was caught off guard by talk of a settlement and vowed to fight the suit.

The Philip Morris logo
Philip Morris said that it was not aware of settlement talks
One of the defendants, Philip Morris, said that it had not been approached and the company was not aware of any settlement discussions.

In a statement, however, the company said it continued to believe the case was "without merit".

And the government may find it difficult to reach a settlement.

A spokesman for RJ Reynolds said: "We will not settle this lawsuit for any amount of money."

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See also:

07 Jun 01 | Business
What now for Big Tobacco?
07 Jun 01 | Business
Q&A: Tobacco litigation
26 Apr 01 | Americas
US may abandon tobacco lawsuit
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