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Florida Tobacco Trial Begins

After jury selection that lasted three months, opening statements began Monday in the second class-action lawsuit to be filed by smokers against the tobacco industry, reports CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts.

As many as 500,000 sick Florida smokers are seeking $200 billion in damages from the nation's five largest cigarette makers and three industry trade groups.

The defense was to begin its opening argument Tuesday, but its position is already well known.

"The basic common sense of the American people for the most part is: You knew the risk, you took the choice and you should be responsible," the industry's lead lawyer, Robert Heim, said recently.

On Monday, attorneys for the plaintiffs opened their case by characterizing the defendants as a cabal preying on innocent citizens, especially the young, to maintain business.

"The essence of the conspiracy and fraud of these defendants has been to get smokers hooked on nicotine as young as possible and make lifelong customers of them," attorney Stanley Rosenblatt said.

"As smokers get older, as smokers die, as smokers quit because they're sick, or for other reasons, there is only one source of replacement smokers and that is kids," he said.

Stricken with cancer of the larynx, he can only eat through a tube in his stomach, Frank Amadeo is one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "Smoking almost killed me," Amadeo said. "It put me in my present situation, and I still crave it. There is no question in my mind nicotine is addictive."

Rosenblatt said the industry has never accepted responsibility for the "devastating health consequences caused by cigarettes."

Rather, he contended, the manufacturers kept secret dirty details of how smoking can damage health, increased the addictive potential of their product by manipulating nicotine and worked to gain the public's trust. He called the cover-up "`one of the great cons of the 20th century."

Rosenblatt told jurors of experiments at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York in which researchers spread tar from cigarette smoke on the backs of mice, and about half got malignant tumors.

When the news came out in a 1953 article, the tobacco industry responded with a full-page ad appearing in more than 400 newspapers that cast doubt on the research and noted there are many ways of getting cancer.

"There is no proof that cigarette smoking is one of them," Rosenblatt read from the ad.

The only previous class-action lawsuit against the industry to make it to trial was one by flight attendants who claimed secondhand smoke made them sick. In that case, also handled by Rosenblatt and his wife, Susan, the tobacco industry agreed to a $300 million settlement to establish a research foundation.

The tobacco industry has also agreed to pay four states a total of $37 billion to settle lawsuits over th costs of treating sick smokers. Florida was among those states, but nothing in its settlement prevents individuals from suing.

The defendants are Philip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Lorillard Tobacco Co. and Liggett Group Inc., as well as Miami's Dosal Tobacco Corp., the Council for Tobacco Research and the Tobacco Institute.

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