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Tobacco companies have been forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the medical bills of dead or dying smokers. They’ve had to spend millions more on ad campaigns to discourage young people from smoking. And now, in a precedent-setting case, a West Virginia jury will decide whether the industry should be forced to spend as much as $500 million on doctors’ exams for healthy people who, despite the warnings, kept on smoking. Jury selection started in state court Thursday in a trial that is expected to take 3 1/2 months. It is the first time a class action lawsuit demanding that a tobacco company pay for preventive medical monitoring has made it to trial in the United States. Twelve other cases have been filed around the country since 1996, according to a Jeff Furr, an attorney for R.J. Reynolds. Ten of the 13 were denied class-action status and dismissed. One, in Nevada, is still under review by the courts. A Louisiana case has been granted class-action status but is not expected to go to trial until the summer. “This is an extremely unique case — to have uninjured plaintiffs who have knowingly and voluntarily exposed themselves to the most widely known risk in our society, and who are not sick,” Furr said. He said the smokers “want to have it both ways” — they want to continue exposing themselves to a known danger but still be assured of health exams. Lawyers representing more than 250,000 West Virginians covered by the lawsuit said the five cigarette manufacturers and two distributors being sued should provide free periodic medical tests for smokers who are currently healthy but at risk of contracting various cancers and lung or heart disease. “West Virginians are entitled to obtain monitoring as a result of their exposure to a very toxic group of substances,” said one of the lawyers, Scott Segal. The defendants include four manufacturers that altogether have 96 percent of the U.S. market: Reynolds; Philip Morris; Brown & Williamson; and Lorillard. Also targeted is industry turncoat Liggett & Myers, whose top executive is expected to be a key witness for the smokers. The lawsuit would benefit people who, since 1995, have smoked the equivalent of a pack a day for five years but do not currently have a cigarette-related illness. Furr said the plaintiffs’ demands could cost the tobacco industry as much as $500 million. Claims for medical monitoring have mostly involved cases in which people were unknowingly exposed to an invisible hazard. Furr said that is not the case with cigarettes, which have had warning labels for decades. The smokers will argue, however, that tobacco companies did not disclose the extent of the risks associated with smoking and that the warning labels are inadequate. Two judges with experience in mass litigation will preside over the trial because of the expected length of the case and the volume of work. The smokers hope to bolster their case with the videotaped testimony from Bennett S. LeBow, chief executive of Liggett & Myers’ parent company, Brooke Group. LeBow in 1997 became the first top tobacco executive to break ranks and admit smoking is addictive. He has testified about the dangers of smoking at other trials, and the company has released thousands of secret industry documents. Liggett tried unsuccessfully to extract itself from the lawsuit, and its competitors joined the battle, with Furr arguing that LeBow’s testimony is intended “to poison the jury against the other defendants.” Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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