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A lawsuit aimed at forcing tobacco companies to pay for medical tests for 250,000 West Virginia smokers went to trial Monday, with the plaintiffs’ lawyer accusing the industry of conspiring to ignore links between cigarettes and disease. “In almost all of their decisions, the motive was profit, profit ahead of the research,” attorney Scott Segal said in his opening statement. The suit is the first class-action of its kind to go to trial, filed on behalf of West Virginians who have smoked the equivalent of a pack a day for five years but do not have a tobacco-related illness. The smokers want four of the nation’s biggest cigarette makers to provide free, annual medical tests to monitor for lung cancer, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The suit accuses R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard of designing and continuing to sell a defective product without regard for people’s health. Segal said that as early as 1954, the companies promised publicly to make safety and health research their paramount consideration but focused only on flavor, delivery of nicotine and marketing. The tobacco companies say that they did nothing to conceal the possible dangers of smoking, that the hazards of their product have long been known and that the best medical monitoring is quitting. Defense lawyers also insisted that the companies never wavered in trying to design a safer cigarette, spending billions on research. “It is a sad but true fact that we cannot buy a scientific breakthrough,” Philip Morris attorney Sam Klein said. “Science must evolve.” R.J. Reynolds attorney Jeff Furr also said tobacco companies are hoping to make a safer cigarette. “The first company that can make a safe cigarette is going to reap a huge financial reward, and of course, all the companies want to be the first to get there,” Furr said. “They just haven’t been able to get there yet.” He also said the tobacco companies did make cigarettes safer, reducing the average tar level 70 percent between 1954 and 1998. Furr said the only way to make cigarettes risk-free is to install a filter that blocks all the smoke — and that’s something smokers wouldn’t buy. “Cigarettes are inherently risky but not defective,” he said. “That inherent risk has nothing to do with the conduct of the companies.” The first attempt to try the case ended in a mistrial in January after witnesses referred to addiction and nicotine. Both words had been banned from testimony. But the judge later ruled that smokers can argue that addiction increases their risk of disease. Furr said the program the West Virginia smokers want exists nowhere else in the world and is fundamentally unfair because it doesn’t require anyone to quit. “It was designed to be as large and expensive and unrestricted as possible,” he said. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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