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Prosecutors seek strict penalties



Published: Wed, June 8, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



A judge has backed off harsh sanctions against tobacco companies.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal prosecutors on Tuesday asked a judge overseeing a racketeering case against major cigarette makers to impose a long list of penalties on the companies, including a nationwide stop-smoking program and restrictions on tobacco marketing.

"During the course of this trial, the United States has met its burden of proof," Justice Department attorney Sharon Eubanks said as closing arguments started. She described a "decades-long pattern of material misrepresentations, half truths, deceptions and lies that continue to this day."

However, the department backed off the 25-year, $130 billion smoking cessation program suggested by government witness Michael C. Fiore, a medical professor at the University of Wisconsin. Instead, the government suggested the companies pay for a five-year, $10 billion program.

Justice Department attorneys did not explain the reduction, but cigarette makers saw it as a positive sign.

"Somewhere $120 billion has suddenly disappeared," said Philip Morris lawyer Ted Wells.

Misinformation campaign

The government alleged cigarette companies conspired for decades to deceive the public about the dangers of smoking. The companies deny the charges and argue the civil racketeering statute under which the case was filed in 1999 severely limits any sanctions U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler can impose if she finds against them.

In February an appeals court stripped the government of its biggest stick against the defendants, denying a request to seek $280 billion in allegedly ill-gotten gains.

Among the other penalties the government suggested Tuesday were long-term educational campaigns designed to counter tobacco marketing, quantifiable reductions in youth smoking rates and restrictions on practices such as price discounts and in-store displays.

Government lawyer Stephen Brody suggested Judge Kessler issue injunctions governing the companies' public statements about the risks of smoking and requiring the release of certain documents.

In addition, he suggested requiring the companies to pay for court-appointed monitors to ensure compliance. If monitors find misconduct, they could recommend changes, including the removal of senior management, Brody said.

Establishing precedent

Judge Kessler asked the government to look for legal precedents to back its request.

"Here you are essentially asking for judicial oversight of private corporations. These are very weighty issues, I'll leave it at that," she said.

Throughout the government's closing arguments Tuesday, Judge Kessler resisted proposals that would require her persistent supervision.

"I think you are suggesting that I would be the one overseeing and supervising the whole effort," she said about the proposed education campaign.

The defendants in the lawsuit are Philip Morris USA Inc. and its parent, Altria Group Inc.; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.; Brown & amp; Williamson Tobacco Co.; British American Tobacco Ltd.; Lorillard Tobacco Co.; Liggett Group Inc.; Counsel for Tobacco Research-U.S.A.; and the Tobacco Institute.

As they begin closing arguments today, the defense will probably focus on how the statute restricts what Kessler can do.

"This case is basically on life support and we're going to try to put it to bed tomorrow," Wells said outside the courthouse Tuesday.




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