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Justice Department wants $20 million to sue tobacco industry

graphic In this story:

February 1, 1999
Web posted at: 8:15 p.m. EST (0115 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Justice Department on Monday asked for $20 million to launch its civil lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

Attorney General Janet Reno said most of the money would be used to pay for 40 attorneys who would press the civil case, seeking recovery of federal funds used to treat tobacco-related illnesses. Other officials said $5 million would be for the expected cost of expert witnesses.

Justice Department officials acknowledged the $20 million likely would be just a down payment on the case, which could take years to settle.

In his State of the Union address last month, President Clinton announced his intention to sue cigarette makers. But this is the first official indication of the size and cost of the government's planned effort.

Recovery target

The lawsuit is intended to recover smoking-related medical costs incurred through Medicare, Veterans Administration and military base hospitals, Native American medical programs and the Federal Employee Health Benefits program.

Medicaid is not involved in the Justice Department lawsuit because only state governments may sue manufacturers for costs related to that program.

Federal officials refuse to speculate about how much they may seek from the tobacco industry. They have not yet decided when, where or how they will initiate the legal action. Justice Department lawyers have only begun to explore potential legal approaches.

What to prove

One senior official said the government will have to prove the tobacco manufacturers committed a tort such as fraud, negligence or nuisance.

One theory being considered follows the outlines of a federal lawsuit against breast implant manufacturer Dow Corning. In that case, the government is seeking, through the Medical Secondary Payer Act, to recover $32.5 million for individual Medicare costs.

Another approach involves the Medical Care Recovery Act, which federal lawyers used last year to sue four producers of blood products used in transfusions. The firms were sued for inadequate screening for HIV and hepatitis, in a case settled out of court last April.

CNN's Terry Frieden and Reuters contributed to this report.

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