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Cigarette manufacturers, health advocates and lawmakers were caught off guard by word that the U.S. Justice Department is considering settling its lawsuit against the tobacco industry. The White House said Wednesday that President George W. Bush concurs that opening possible settlement talks is the “most appropriate and fitting way to reach an agreement.” Some health advocates said they were worried the administration will not seek a strong settlement. And tobacco companies signaled they were not about to charge to the settlement table. “We will not settle this lawsuit for any amount of money,” said Seth Moskowitz, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., based in North Carolina. Philip Morris Inc., the nation’s largest cigarette manufacturer, reiterated in a statement that the lawsuit was “without merit.” Two Bush administration sources said Tuesday there has been concern about the strength of the government’s case against the industry. These officials, discussing the matter only on grounds of anonymity, said the department would prefer to go for a settlement now rather than risk losing later. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters it is hard to speculate on any outcome if the lawsuit moves forward. “In general, the president does believe that we are much too litigious a society — that there are far too many lawsuits and it’s preferable if you can reach agreements, to reach agreements,” Fleischer said. “The Department of Justice is going to proceed on a two-track approach — one involving litigation, the other involving possible settlement talks — and the president supports that approach,” he said. He declined to say whether Bush agreed with a central element of the case against the tobacco companies: the allegation that they defrauded the American people about the health risks of smoking. “This is news to us. We have been contacted by no one,” said Mark Smith, a spokesman for Kentucky-based Brown-Williamson Corp. “Did we know they were going to consider this? No,” said Moskowitz, the Reynolds spokesman. Health advocates said they were shocked and expressed hope that the administration will fight for a strong settlement agreement. Some feared the government already may be on the defensive. “No good-faith negotiator would settle their litigation by announcing at the beginning that they might lose,” said William Corr, executive vice president of the Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids. John Garrison, chief executive of the American Lung Association, said he was concerned a settlement would protect cigarette makers from future lawsuits. “Under no circumstances should the Bush administration consider granting immunity or limits on liability to the tobacco industry,” Garrison said. The Bush administration inherited the lawsuit from the Clinton administration, which filed it in September 1999. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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