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Turncoat Tobacco Boss Talks

The chief executive of the Liggett Group tobacco company told jurors considering punitive damages Thursday that he could pay a few million dollars but not the $1.8 billion suggested by one witness.

"Somewhere in the five to ten million dollar range we could quickly arrange," Bennett LeBow, chairman and CEO of Liggett's parent Vector Group, told jurors in a landmark smokers' case.

Liggett's 1999 audit reported a $34 million net worth, the first positive number in years, he said. On cross-examination, he said his Vector stock is worth $176 million.

About 300,000 to 700,000 sick Florida smokers want a multibillion-dollar award to penalize the industry for decades of misconduct. The industry wants the jury to award nothing, saying it is already paying enough on $254 billion in commitments to settle state government lawsuits.

LeBow broke with the rest of the tobacco industry in 1996 by settling state lawsuits and followed up in 1997 with more settlements, admissions about the health dangers of smoking and the disclosure of thousands of secret industry documents.

"I think it's my duty to do it, almost," said LeBow, who built his reputation as a takeover artist and bought Liggett as an investment in 1986. "I feel very good doing it. I sleep well at night."

LeBow said he wants to stay in the cigarette business to attack the industry from the inside.

"I honestly believe it's very important that we stay in business, that we be the maverick of the industry, that we beat the industry up and make them do the right thing," said LeBow.

Before LeBow took the stand, Philip Morris attorney Dan Webb lost attempts to separate Liggett from the other four cigarette makers in the case and to severely restrict his testimony.

"He's entitled to say something in his defense," said Circuit Judge Robert Kaye. "He's here to plead his case."

The jury in the current case already has decided the industry makes a deadly, defective product. Smokers' witnesses have testified the industry can raise $150 billion to $157 billion to pay a punitive award.

LeBow was the first tobacco chief to say smoking is deadly and addictive, words he repeated forcefully and unconditionally to the jury. He also offered a message to three smokers awarded $12.7 million in compensatory damages in the case.

"There's nothing I can do to bring back your loved ones. That can't be done. There's nothing I can do to bring back your health," he said. "But I promise you I will continue to fight this war and win this war on tobacco."

Liggett has voluntarily stopped all advertising, added an addiction label to cigarette packs and ingredient list on cartons, testified against the industry in tobacco cases and cooperates with federal and state health and regulatory agencies.

Besides Liggett, the defendants are Philip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & illiamson Tobacco Corp., Lorillard Tobacco Co. and the industry's defunct Council for Tobacco Research and Tobacco Institute.

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