In an unprecedented spectacle, the chief executive of an American tobacco company raised his right hand Monday, swore to tell the truth - and then testified that cigarettes are addictive and produce deadly diseases.
Overcoming a withering flurry of objections from lawyers paid by his own industry, Bennett LeBow, the maverick Miami executive who owns the Liggett Group, said he now agrees with tobacco’s most strident critics.
“We believe, for many people, smoking is very addictive,” LeBow told a Dade County Circuit Court jury. His company makes Chesterfields, L&Ms;, Larks, Eves and more than 100 discount brands of cigarettes.
He was asked: Does smoking cause lung cancer, heart and respiratory disease and emphysema?
“The answer,” LeBow said, “is yes.”
LeBow testified as a witness for flight attendants who say they developed lung cancer and other serious illnesses through constant exposure to secondhand smoke on jetliners. Claiming to represent 60,000 non-smoking colleagues, they are suing the industry for $5 billion.
The industry denies all the charges, but never before has it been required to block and attack the testimony of one of its own chief executives. Once a valued member of the tobacco fraternity, LeBow is now an outcast.
“They don’t talk to me these days,” he said.
Nevertheless, he testified, he is comfortable with his new alignment with tobacco’s opponents. Liggett recently began printing warnings on its cigarette packages that are sterner than required by law. One of those messages: “Warning: Smoking is addictive.”
“I am very proud,” said LeBow, 59, stocky and tan, a one-time smoker who quit 27 years ago. “I’m absolutely sure we did the right thing, and I’d do it again in a second.”
In March, Liggett and its parent company, the Brooke Group, settled lawsuits filed by dozens of states seeking to recover Medicaid funds spent on sick smokers.
The smallest of the five major cigarette producers, Liggett agreed to pay one-quarter of its pretax profits during the next 25 years. The problem: Liggett is in financial trouble and no one knows if it will earn any profits.
Circuit Judge Robert Kaye prohibited testimony about Liggett’s settlement or last month’s $368.5 billion national settlement between the tobacco industry and 40 state attorneys general.
But in the past, industry officials have sought to portray LeBow as a financial opportunist who simply wanted to get a better deal from the attorneys general.
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