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Lead Gov't Tobacco Lawyer Quits

The lead trial lawyer in the government's landmark lawsuit against the tobacco industry, including three North Carolina-based companies, has quit the case and left the Justice Department. The move comes at a particularly sensitive time when the companies and the department could still negotiate a settlement.

Sharon Eubanks, who had aggressively pursued the racketeering case against the tobacco industry, was withdrawing effective Thursday, the government said in a one-sentence filing in U.S. District Court.

Eubanks said her supervisors' failure to support her work on the tobacco case influenced her decision to retire after 22 years with the department.

Her withdrawal follows a stunning reversal in June in which the Justice Department disregarded the recommendations of its own witness, Dr. Michael Fiore, and reduced the amount it was demanding from the tobacco industry for smoking cessation programs to $10 billion. Fiore had proposed $130 billion.

After strong criticism from Democrats, the department is investigating whether political appointees inappropriately pressured the trial team to slash the proposed penalty against the companies.

"The political appointees to whom I report made this an easy decision," Eubanks told The Washington Post. She said her work on the tobacco case has been professionally rewarding but her politically appointed bosses "have been somewhat less than supportive of the team's efforts," the newspaper reported on Thursday.

Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said he has not gotten a response from the department on his request of nearly a month ago to be included in any settlement discussions between the government and the companies.

Eubanks' departure "should not serve as an excuse for secret negotiations that lead to a weak settlement," Myers said.

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller declined to comment on the reasons for Eubank's departure.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has said the Justice Department's request for $10 billion was made on the merits of the case, independent of political considerations.

Spending $5.2 billion a year on tobacco cessation programs for 25 years would profoundly improve the health of Americans, Fiore said in a recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine, reprising some of his testimony as a government witness at the tobacco trial in May.

It is "such a tragedy that the Justice Department backed away from their original cessation remedy," Fiore wrote. "Can you imagine what would happen if, as we projected with this plan, 1 million additional smokers quit each year, 33 million over time?"

In August, the Justice Department used Fiore's name 45 times in a post-trial brief to bolster its arguments against the cigarette companies, despite having disregarded the amount he had recommended the industry should pay.

"Dr. Fiore is simply the world's foremost expert on the treatment of tobacco dependence and the population-wide delivery of smoking cessation services," the Justice Department said.

"As the court is aware, Dr. Fiore's professional work in the field has spanned almost two decades and involved virtually everything from treatment of individual patients to the design and implementation of population-wide smoking cessation programs," the department added.

The defendants in the lawsuit are Philip Morris USA Inc. and its parent, Altria Group Inc.; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co., which have merged to form Reynolds American Inc. headquartered in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Lorillard Tobacco Co. of Greensboro, N.C.; North Carolina-based Liggett Group Inc.; British American Tobacco Ltd.; Counsel for Tobacco Research-U.S.A.; and the Tobacco Institute.