Government In New Dispute With Tobacco Companies

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Justice Department is in a new dispute with the tobacco industry over the government's landmark lawsuit against the companies.

The government has prepared corrective statements it wants the companies to be forced to make about the health hazards from smoking. But the tobacco companies don't want those proposed statements put in the public record before they get a chance to review them.

In court papers, the Justice Department said the companies misunderstand the way the statements were to be filed.

The department asked the federal judge in the case, Gladys Kessler, to say whether she intends to prohibit the government from filing its proposed corrective statements publicly.

In 2006, Kessler ruled that the tobacco industry had concealed the dangers of smoking for decades. The proposed statements by the companies would be the remedy for that violation.

On Friday, the industry told the court that it wants the proposed corrective statements to be filed with the companies so that both sides can minimize if not eliminate any disagreements in advance of a March 3 deadline.

But public health groups that intervened in the lawsuit said in a court brief that in light of the industry's "misconduct, there is no basis - or precedent - for negotiating these statements entirely behind closed doors."

The companies are Altria Group Inc., the parent company of Philip Morris USA, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Lorillard Tobacco Co.

"We have a meet-and-confer process that we have been following on a number of issues, as the court knows," Altria said in a press statement. "We will have the same process when the government gives us their proposal on corrective statements, which we have not seen yet."

Last year, the Supreme Court left Kessler's ruling in place while also rejecting an appeal by the Obama administration, which was trying to extract billions of dollars from the industry either in past profits or to finance a national campaign to curb smoking.