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Small Tobacco Firm Settles 22 Suits, Admits Wrongdoing

By John Schwartz and Saundra Torry
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The smallest of the nation's major tobacco companies settled 22 state lawsuits Thursday by admitting that smoking causes cancer and other diseases, that nicotine is addictive and that the industry targets underage smokers - concessions that could have repercussions for the entire industry.

Liggett Group Inc. also agreed to release thousands of pages of internal documents that could provide damaging evidence in lawsuits still pending against other cigarette makers and to provide Liggett employees to testify as witnesses in those cases.

Minnesota Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III compared the Liggett action to "turning state's evidence," and explained, "this is a little like busting a street drug dealer to get at the Colombian drug cartel."

"I believe this is the beginning of the end of this conspiracy of lies and deception," said Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods at a late afternoon news conference where the agreement was announced. "Someone is finally telling the truth."

Breaking for the second time with the tobacco industry's decades-long united front, Liggett also agreed to beef up the warning labels on its products and pay 25 percent of pretax profits to the states for the next 25 years. The money would be used to help pay for the costs of treating smokers' health problems and for anti-smoking programs, which is what the original lawsuits had sought.

Before the deal was even signed, the other major tobacco companies denounced the agreement and raced to court in Winston-Salem, N.C., where they won a court order temporarily blocking Liggett from releasing documents covered by other companies' attorney-client privilege.

Liggett immediately released a handful of documents that it determined were not covered by attorney-client privilege to the attorneys general, and sent the thousands of pages of protected documents to courts around the country hearing the state suits.

If a judge determines that the documents show that the papers show that crimes or fraud had occurred, the legal protections for those papers could be broken.

Attorney General Mike Moore of Mississippi was confident that the North Carolina injunction would not prevent the release of documents to courts in other states - "that dog won't hunt," he joked.