The chief executive of tobacco holding company Vector Group Ltd. backed away from past admissions that smoking is a proven cause of disease during testimony on Monday in the government’s racketeering trial against the industry.
Bennett LeBow, who controls cigarette maker Liggett Group through his stake in Vector, told a federal judge that his views had changed since 1997, when he broke ranks with the rest of the tobacco industry and conceded that smoking was a proven cause of lung cancer and other ills. “I’ve changed my opinion pretty much in the last four or five years,” LeBow said in the first day of testimony since an appeals court on Friday barred the government from seeking $280 billion in past industry profits in the case. LeBow said he still believes smoking is addictive and harmful, and that studies have linked it to diseases like lung cancer. But he said he now has doubts about whether the causal connection has been proven under strict scientific standards. “A lot of these scientific (studies), I don’t think they had enough proof to prove anything,” LeBow said. LeBow bought a controlling stake in Liggett in 1986. During 1996 and 1997 the company settled with many state attorneys general. As part of the deals, Liggett conceded nicotine makes cigarettes addictive and smoking causes serious diseases. The other major tobacco companies settled with the states in 1998, agreeing to pay billions of dollars and overhaul their marketing practices. Targeted in the government’s lawsuit, filed in 1999, are Altria Group Inc. and its Philip Morris USA unit; Loews Corp.’s Lorillard Tobacco unit, which has a tracking stock, Carolina Group ; Vector’s Liggett; Reynolds American Inc.’s R.J. Reynolds Tobacco unit and British American Tobacco Plc unit British American Tobacco Investments Ltd. The tobacco companies deny they illegally conspired to promote smoking and say the government has no grounds to pursue them after the 1998 settlement. District Judge Gladys Kessler said nothing during the day’s proceedings about the ruling by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday that reversed her on whether the government can seek disgorgement of past profits. Justice Department lawyers are still studying the ruling to decide whether to appeal, a department spokesman said. At issue in Monday’s cross examination was LeBow’s allegation in written testimony that the industry had withheld information about the health effects of smoking. Those charges could bolster the government’s case that cigarette makers tried to confuse the public for decades by falsely denying there was any scientific proof smoking caused disease. But LeBow did little to help the government’s case on Monday. He could not recall specific documents that prompted him to settle with the states and said he had no direct knowledge about what tobacco companies had done before 1986. (Source: Reuters Health, February 2005)