ABUELROUZ STARLIGHT
Jeff Chiu  /  AP file
Sam Abuelrouz, center, makes a sale at Smokes, Etc. in San Francisco. Federal prosecutors said Tuesday they are asking tobacco firms for a dramatically reduced penalty to spend on smoking cessation programs.
updated 6/8/2005 7:42:54 PM ET 2005-06-08T23:42:54

A federal judge on Wednesday questioned what was behind the government’s decision to dramatically reduce the proposed size of a nationwide stop-smoking program, one of the penalties recommended in a racketeering suit against cigarette makers.

The government asked U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler on Tuesday to require the companies to fund a five-year, $10 billion program, a fraction of the 25-year, $130 billion program suggested by government witness Michael C. Fiore, a University of Wisconsin medical professor.

The Justice Department called the $10 billion program an “initial request” that could be expanded. But Kessler said Wednesday, “There may be some additional influences being brought to bear” on the government’s decision.

Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., sent a letter Wednesday to Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine asking him to assess whether “improper political interference” factored in the decision to ask for a smaller program.

“The Justice Department’s approach to tobacco litigation should be based on the facts of the case and not political favors to the tobacco industry,” the congressmen wrote. “It is highly unusual for government prosecutors to abandon evidence-based testimony by their key witnesses at the last moment in a major trial.”

Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum said the government would address the stop-smoking program again Thursday, when closing arguments are scheduled to conclude. But, speaking to several reporters in the courtroom, he said he would not comment on what factors influenced the decision to ask for a smaller program.

The Justice Department claims tobacco companies conspired to deceive the public about the health risks of smoking, and it filed the suit under a civil racketeering law designed to prosecute mobsters.

As the companies started their closing arguments Wednesday, they said the government has not proven its case, and the companies have drastically changed their business practices since the alleged conspiracy began five decades ago.

“The enterprise that the government alleged is gone,” said Brown & Williamson lawyer David Bernick.

In February, an appeals court stripped the government of its biggest stick against the defendants by denying the prosecutors’ request to seek $280 billion in allegedly ill-gotten gains. The companies contend the racketeering law under which the case was filed in 1999 severely limits what penalties Kessler can impose if she finds liability.

Among the other penalties the government suggested Tuesday were long-term educational campaigns designed to counter tobacco marketing, quantifiable reductions in youth smoking rates and restrictions on practices such as price discounts and in-store displays.

But the biggest price tag mentioned by the government’s witnesses on remedies was attached to the smoking cessation program. Philip Morris lawyer Ted Wells said even the reduced program would not be allowed under the racketeering law.

“Whether the price of the cessation program is $130 billion or $10 billion or 99 cents, it is still a fatally flawed program,” he said.

The defendants in the lawsuit are Philip Morris USA Inc. and its parent, Altria Group Inc.; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.; Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co.; British American Tobacco Ltd.; Lorillard Tobacco Co.; Liggett Group Inc.; Counsel for Tobacco Research-U.S.A.; and the Tobacco Institute.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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