Big Tobacco Invades Cyberspace

The tobacco industry Friday posted hundreds of thousands of internal documents on the Internet to keep a pledge that tobacco executives made to Congress last month.

The documents included most of those compiled by Minnesota and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota in their $1.77 billion lawsuit against the industry, now in its sixth week.

Tobacco interests said the posting showed the industry's new attitude of openness and cooperation.

"This is not a hollow gesture," said Scott Williams, a tobacco industry spokesman in Washington. "This is an unprecedented release of industry material."

Opponents of tobacco, including the Minnesota plaintiffs, rejected it as a weak public relations ploy and pointed out it doesn't include documents the industry is fighting to keep secret.

"It's disingenuous for the tobacco industry to claim that this PR stunt proves they are coming clean with the truth," Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III said in a statement today. "It's like Dick Nixon taking credit for releasing the Watergate tapes."

Tobacco companies have claimed attorney-client privilege for many documents. A special master rejected that claim for 39,000 documents; the judge in the Minnesota case has yet to rule on the special master's recommendation.

The companies posting the documents are Philip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp. and Lorillard Tobacco Co. Executives promised the posting during a Jan. 29 hearing of the House Commerce Committee.

"They cover a wide range of smoking and health issues covered in scientific and marketing research reports, memoranda, executive correspondence, handwritten notes and other materials," the companies wrote in the statement.

Each company was to provide an index for its own documents, including title, author, recipient and date, said Peggy Roberts, a spokeswoman for Philip Morris in New York.

The state and Blue Cross and Blue Shield are suing the tobacco companies to recover money spent treating smoking-related illness, plus punitive damages. They charge the industry concealed the dangers of smoking for decades.

The release of the documents comes as Congress debates whether to ratify or rewrite the $368 billion settlement struck in June between the tobacco companies and state attorneys general. Part of the deal requires the companies to pay for a document repository that would be available to the public.

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