updated 11/21/2004 7:41:45 PM ET 2004-11-22T00:41:45

A former Philip Morris USA scientist plans to testify that the tobacco giant failed to tell smokers that a change to Merit cigarettes four years ago caused chunks of burning ash to fall off, presenting a potential safety hazard.

The allegations by Michael Watkins are just one part of a $280 billion civil racketeering case in which the Justice Department claims the tobacco industry engaged in a conspiracy over five decades to mislead the public about all kinds of smoking health risks, medical and otherwise.

The Justice Department says Watkins’ testimony will help show that Philip Morris continues its pattern of concealing the harmful nature of cigarettes. Despite research on the issue and a soaring number of complaints from Merit smokers, “Philip Morris never warned consumers in any respect about the problem,” the government said in a filing in U.S. District Court in Washington.

Richmond-based Philip Morris, part of New York-based Altria Group Inc., has denied any wrongdoing. It acknowledged that complaints from smokers soared after the 2000 launch of its new Merits, but it said such responses are typical after any change. Those complaints subsided over time and fell to pre-launch levels, the company said.

Although Philip Morris said it has received no reports of fire or serious injuries, it decided to voluntarily inform federal regulators of the issue and alter the Merit design in 2002.

Company dismisses government claims
Philip Morris called the government’s accusations “entirely irrelevant” to the case. “In sum, Watkins’ allegations are unsupportable and the government’s attempt to use them to shore up its ... case is unavailing,” the company said in court papers.

In fact, Philip Morris says its Merits included a built-in safety feature: ultra-thin bands of paper that act as speed bumps to slow the burn of unattended cigarettes. The smokes with the trademarked PaperSelect feature were designed so they would be more likely to extinguish themselves when not puffed.

But soon after Philip Morris introduced the new Merits, smokers began complaining about large pieces of burning tobacco that would fall unexpectedly from the cigarettes.

“Consumer states he has burned a hole in his chair, shirt and car seat,” an employee wrote in Philip Morris’s customer-service records.

“He is scared he is going to burn his house down,” another wrote.

“I have a hole in a robe and a night gown because I had to take a deep draw and the ash fell on my robe,” a customer told the company.

Merits generated more complaints
Coal drop-off, when the lit end of the cigarette falls off, can occur with any cigarette. But, according to the Justice Department, complaints about the phenomenon “are exceedingly infrequent” for smokers with non-banded paper — about one complaint every two weeks. The new Merit cigarettes, on the other hand, generated an increasing number of complaints that reached 247 complaints per billion cigarettes in October 2000.

Philip Morris assigned Watkins, a physicist who holds more than 20 patents for his work, to investigate the cause of the coal drop-off.

Watkins, 45, lives in Chester, Va., and now works for an energy company. He declined through his attorney, Joseph E. Preston, to be interviewed before his testimony, which is expected later this month or in December.

But during a videotaped deposition in May 2002, Watkins said he told senior managers that, based on preliminary research, the paper bands appeared to playing a role in the problem. Initial data, he said, showed cigarettes with banded paper were seven times more likely to develop the problem when they were vibrated as the burning coal entered the band.

Watkins’ supervisor, Tyrone Murray, “was visibly unhappy with the test results,” the government said. He complained to Watkins and pushed to have the research done using an old testing device that was more likely to yield the results Murray wanted.

A change of position
Watkins said in his deposition that he told senior managers that “coal drop-off, of all the complaints, is a situation which has a potential to cause harm to smokers.”

In November 2001, he was flown from Richmond to Philip Morris’s former headquarters in New York, where he presented his research and concerns to chief executive Michael Szymanczyk and other top managers.

Two months later, Watkins was banished to an empty office without a telephone line, according to the Justice Department’s filing. Then he was fired, the government says.

Philip Morris said in a court document that Watkins was dismissed after he did not attend several meetings and made negative remarks about co-workers. It also said he failed to do appropriate work to verify data — a claim that does not match descriptions from some scientists familiar with Watkins’ work.

“I have a very high opinion of Mike’s skills,” said Elliott Cramer, a federal government researcher who has known Watkins for about 10 years. “I’ve seen nothing except for very high integrity. When working on a project, he gets very involved with it.”

Bill Winfree, also a federal government researcher, said he was also impressed with Watkins’ solid research. “I’d say he was pretty focused on how he approached his work,” he said.

Watkins’ attorney, Joseph Preston, said: “Clearly, we deny he was terminated for any other reason than his research results.”

Company denies warning occurred
Philip Morris said Watkins never stated during his presentation to high-level executives that the public should be warned about the safety risks posed by coal drop-off. Also, the company said it discovered a major contributor to coal drop-off was the porosity of the base paper used in the Merits — which it fixed in 2002.

“We took those complaints and comments into account in re-examining what we could do with the technology,” said Peggy Roberts, a Philip Morris spokeswoman.

Philip Morris also said there is no proof the banded-paper technology presents any safety risk. However, one employee, technology vice president Hector Alonso, noted in his deposition that while coal drop-off is “a distraction and a nuisance,” it also could cause motorists to get distracted.

A frequent critic of the tobacco industry says the benefits of the technology — fewer cigarette-started fires — clearly outweigh the risks of coal drop-off.

Russell Sciandra, director of the Center for a Tobacco Free New York, said coal drop-off might cause a burn on skin or clothing. But that pales in comparison to a house fire caused by a sleepy smoker who drops an entire lit cigarette. Such a threat was addressed by New York when it recently became the first state to require tobacco manufacturers to sell so-called “self-extinguishing” cigarettes.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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