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    U.S. to Assemble Tobacco Settlement Team

    Bush less interested than predecessor in punishing cigarette industry.

    U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has decided to assemble a team in an effort to settle the federal government's massive landmark lawsuit against the tobacco industry, U.S. Justice Department officials said yesterday.

    Ashcroft, who as a Republican senator from Missouri opposed the lawsuit brought by the Democratic Clinton administration, told congressional leaders of his decision aimed at trying to reach a settlement in the case, Reuters reported.

    The officials said the settlement team would be separate from and work at the same time with the Justice Department lawyers handling the ongoing litigation, which seeks to recover billions of dollars in damages.

    The officials also believe the settlement team has yet to contact any of the tobacco companies to set up meetings and they were unable to say how long it might take to reach any settlement. The lawsuit was brought in 1999 with the strong support of then-President Bill Clinton. But some Republicans in Congress have sought to cut off funding for the litigation, which President Bush had questioned during his candidacy.

    The defendants are Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, British American Tobacco Plc's Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Loews Corp.'s Lorillard Tobacco Co. Inc., Vector Group Ltd.'s Liggett Group Inc., the Council for Tobacco Research U.S.A. Inc. and the Tobacco Institute Inc.

    R.J. Reynolds spokesman Seth Moskowitz told Reuters, "We are not willing to settle for any amount of money. We don't believe that this case should have been filed in the first place."

    In a statement, Philip Morris, the world's largest cigarette company, said "We continue to believe the case is without merit."

    A tobacco analyst said the industry will have a strong hand in any settlement negotiations. "In my view this stance of the (Justice Department) is recognition of just how weak the government's claim really is," Martin Feldman, a tobacco analyst with New York-based Salomon Smith Barney, told Reuters. "I very much doubt that the tobacco industry will agree to any financial settlement with the government."

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