The US Justice Department is suing the world's leading tobacco companies for $289bn (£184.5bn) of their profits for the alleged fraudulent marketing of cigarettes.
A fifth of US deaths are due to smoking related illnesses
A court filing by the US government claims the companies lied about the link with cancer and the addictiveness of cigarettes.
"In short, defendants' scheme to defraud permeated and
influenced all facets of defendants' conduct - research, product development, advertising, marketing, legal, public relations and communications - in a manner that has resulted in extraordinary profits for the past half-century, but has had devastating consequences for the public's health," the court document said.
It also accused the companies of continuing to target teenagers.
"Defendants have intentionally marketed cigarettes to
youth under the legal smoking age while falsely denying
that they have done so," the filing said.
The defendants have until 14 April to respond to the allegations and the trial is scheduled for September 2004.
"A lot of what they claim as being fraud are things that are either false or things that the government was aware of because the tobacco companies were either working with the government or were being told by the government about some of these issues," said a spokesman for tobacco giant Philip Morris.
The industry will ask the judge to dismiss the case.
The Justice Department estimates 440,000 Americans die from smoking related illnesses every year and the government has spent billions of dollars treating sick smokers.
It is the first time the government has indicated how much money it is seeking from the industry from the lawsuit filed in 1999.
The claim exceeds the $206bn the industry agreed to pay 46 US states in a separate lawsuit in 1998.
The main defendants in the case include Altria Group (Philip Morris), RJ Reynolds Tobacco, Lorillard Tobacco, British American Tobacco and Liggett Group.