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$200B Tobacco Trial Under Way

Jury selection got off to a slow start Monday for a landmark lawsuit against the tobacco industry that seeks $200 billion in damages for up to 500,000 sick Florida smokers.

The first man questioned said he thought the idea of smokers getting money in a lawsuit against tobacco companies was "ridiculous."

Anticipating more trouble with jury selection, Circuit Judge Robert Kaye told the lawyers, "This is not one of those issues where people don't have an opinion."

Mostly due to personal views against smokers, nine of 12 jury candidates were excused Monday. Selection of six jurors and 12 alternates is likely to take at least a month.

A pool of 240 people filled out 34-page questionnaires in advance of Monday's session to give attorneys an overview of their personal lives and sentiments about smoking and big lawsuits.

The lawsuit is the latest challenge for the industry, which has settled four state lawsuits for nearly $37 billion and has let only individual smokers' cases go to juries, with mixed results. And it is the first major tobacco trial since the collapse of a $516 billion tobacco control bill in Congress.

It charges the tobacco industry made a defective product and conspired to deceive the public and government about smoking-related illnesses.

Named as defendants are Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard, Liggett Group and two trade groups, the Council for Tobacco Research and the Tobacco Institute.

The opening jury candidate said he smoked for 36 years before quitting.

"I just think people are and have been well aware of the detriments of smoking," the businessman said. "To come back after the fact, I find that somewhat ridiculous."

Lead tobacco attorney Robert Heim, who focused on the man's illnesses and a relative's cancer death, joined smokers' attorney Stanley Rosenblatt in asking for the man's removal.

Heim said he wasn't surprised that several people said they felt smokers chose to smoke and must live with the consequences.

"That's a pretty strongly held value by a number of people," he said. "People have made a decision to smoke, they take on certain risk and in our legal system they are responsible for the consequences."

Rosenblatt said he would have to overcome what he considers tobacco industry brainwashing.

"A lot of these people, who are good, decent people, don't realize they're singing the Philip Morris fight song," he said. "The advertising gives people a warm feeling about tobacco companies."