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Some critics contend the state's landmark pact highlights

By Karen TestaAssociated Press Published: August 26, 1997 12:00 AM

Some critics contend the state's landmark pact highlights the need for Congress to approve the $368 billion national pact so the federal government can regulate nicotine and set penalties for failing to clamp down on smoking by children.

Others, however, suggest Florida has shown individual states can earn more on their own than as part of a national deal, which would supersede Florida's deal if approved.

Gov. Lawton Chiles helped negotiate the 17-page agreement, which he said includes provisions to protect children, reimburse the state for Medicaid money spent treating sick smokers and "blows away the smoke screen of lies."

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"We wanted acknowledgment of the havoc they had caused in the past and some indication that would change in the future," Chiles said. "There is a debt long past due for big tobacco to pay."

The state had been seeking $12.3 billion based on claims the industry manufactured a defective product and deceived the public about smoking's dangers. Jury selection began Aug. 1.

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Florida will receive an initial payment of about $1 billion within one year and at least another $10.3 billion to be paid out over 25 years. The settlement will be enforced by Florida courts and does not need to be approved by state or federal lawmakers.

The state will spend most of the money on programs geared toward children and health.

"This is another step in a process to end the climate of confrontation and litigation that has marked the national debate on tobacco-related issues," the industry said in a statement.

Arthur Golden, an industry attorney who helped negotiate the deal, refused to comment.

Under the state's deal, all billboards would be removed, starting with those within 1,000 feet of schools or playgrounds, and bans most tobacco advertising on sports arenas and public transportation.

The state settlement includes $200 million, which must be paid by Sept. 15, for an anti-smoking advertising campaign.

Florida still will allow some tobacco advertising at sporting events, including NASCAR races and other events sponsored by cigarette makers. The national deal would wipe out all billboard advertising.

The state's agreement also allows for vending machines in adult-only facilities _ something the national agreement would eliminate altogether.

Nonetheless, Florida's settlement "highlights the fact that we need a national settlement," said John Coale, a Washington attorney who helped negotiate the proposed national deal.

Only the federal government, not individual states, has the authority to regulate nicotine and fine cigarette makers if teen-age smoking doesn't drop, Coale said.

However, Brion Fox, a researcher at the Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California at San Francisco, said state deals do more for the taxpayers and avoid unnecessary federal intervention.

"If you want to protect the public health and preserve individual rights, then the national settlement is not the right approach," he said. "If you use local and state solutions, they're more effective."

Mississippi settled a similar lawsuit for nearly $3.6 billion in July and 37 other states have lawsuits pending.

Texas is slated to go to trial next month and officials there said Florida's settlement had not affected their plans. Georgia Gov. Zell Miller said Monday his state will file its own lawsuit against the tobacco companies by the end of the week.

Florida agreed to accept the money described in its deal, even if it turns out to be less than the national agreement. The formula for dividing the $368.5 billion of the national deal has not been determined.

If a national settlement is not approved within a year, Florida reserved the right to go back to court and seek further restrictions on the industry.

The state also said it would continue its court fight to make public about 400 confidential documents still being reviewed by judges. Under traditional settlements, the state would have ended its pursuit of those documents.

The settlement comes just days after attorneys for the state said executives of the nation's two largest cigarette makers took major steps in admitting smoking's link to fatal illnesses.

Geoffrey Bible, chairman and CEO of Philip Morris Cos., conceded in a deposition Thursday that smoking might have killed 100,000 Americans. The next day RJR Nabisco chief Steven Goldstone testified that he believed "smoking plays a part in causing lung cancer."

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Clarence Newcomer certified a smokers' lawsuit as a class action and set a trial date of Oct. 14. The lawsuit represents some 2.1 million smokers who say they were addicted and are seeking medical monitoring for smoking-related diseases.

The industry has furiously sought to put off the Philadelphia trial while Congress debated the national settlement.

"This is a big deal," Coale said. "It means they've got to hurry up" with ratification of the national settlement.

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