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Big Tobacco Battle Continues

State by state and as a group, the nation's attorneys general agreed to keep fighting Big Tobacco in Congress, through individual lawsuits and with negotiations aimed at a multibillion-dollar settlement.

That was the consensus reached after a nearly five-hour, closed-door session at the National Association of Attorneys General meeting, members said Tuesday.

"We've got a three-pronged approach," said Washington state Attorney General Christine Gregoire. "We have the entire organization telling us to move forward."

On the legislative front, their work will include pressuring Congress to further regulate tobacco and penalize the industry if youth smoking isn't reduced.

"We're not going to keep the pressure away from Congress. We want them to get the job done," said Gregoire. "They've got a job to do, and we want them to have it done."

Four states (Mississippi, Minnesota, Texas, and Florida) have settled lawsuits that sought to recoup the costs of treating sick smokers, securing industry promises for $36.8 billion. The tobacco companies, however, still could face similar lawsuits from 37 states; Washington's lawsuit against the industry is set to start Sept. 14.

However, six attorneys general from California, Colorado, Washington, North Carolina, New York, and Massachusetts will continue settlement negotiations with the tobacco industry that began about a month ago.

Tobacco companies, states, and anti-tobacco activists reached a deal last summer that would have called for the companies to pay $368.5 billion in return for dropping the state lawsuits. But the settlement died in the Senate in June when the price tag grew to $516 billion.

The money, raised in part by adding $1.10 to each pack of cigarettes over five years, would have reimbursed states for smoking-related health care costs, financed an anti-smoking ad campaign, and allowed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate nicotine.

This time around, the attorneys may put together a settlement proposal that won't require congressional approval. Congress would be bypassed because the proposal being discussed would not contain added jurisdiction for the FDA.

Mississippi Attorney General Mike More said a "global resolution" by Congress is still preferable, because lawmakers can address public health concerns the attorneys cannot. He said political fallout is likely if no bill is approved.

"I wouldn't want to be standing for election this year in November," Moore said.

Tobacco companies soon could be facing a new courtroom foe: the federal government. White House press secretary Mike McCurry said Tuesday a federal lawsuit is a possibility.
"In a very preliminary way, it is being examined. But, first and foremos,t our interest is in comprehensive legislation," McCurry said.

Scott Williams, an industry spokesman, declined comment Tuesday night on the eeting of the attorneys general.

Written by Judith Kohler