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Judge reaffirms racketeering charges

Says she still can't force cigarette companies to pay

By Nancy Zuckerbrod

Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- A federal judge says the nation's top cigarette makers conspired for decades to mislead the public about the health hazards and addictive nature of smoking, but she says there's not much she can do to make them pay.

U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler sided with the government Thursday in its seven-year-old civil racketeering case against the tobacco industry; however, she rejected a bid by the Justice Department to make tobacco companies pay billions of dollars in remedies.

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Kessler, who presided over a nonjury trial, said she was barred by an appeals court ruling that remedies must be designed to prevent future wrongdoing and not to punish bad behavior.

Kessler rejected a government proposal to impose fines on the industry if youth smoking rates fail to drop in the coming years, despite finding that the companies marketed to teens and lied about it.

The judge did order the companies to stop labeling cigarettes as "low tar," "light," "ultra light" or "mild," saying they have used those terms to mislead consumers.

"They distorted the truth about low tar and light cigarettes so as to discourage smokers from quitting," Kessler said.

"They suppressed research. They destroyed documents. They manipulated the use of nicotine so as to increase and perpetuate addiction," Kessler wrote in the ruling, which often referenced internal industry memos.

The government had asked the judge to make the companies pay $10 billion for smoking cessation programs.

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