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Big Tobacco after biggest jury award

Industry's survival may pivot on outcome of appeal of a $149 billion damage award.

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It is a number that has captured the attention of the nation - $145 billion.

It's big enough that it sounds like a tax bill being debated in Congress or some new Pentagon project. But, in fact, it is the amount that a Florida jury has ruled that tobacco companies have to pay for damage caused to smokers in the state - and it's raising a fundamental question: Can Big Tobacco survive it?

To some, the award is so start-ling - the equivalent of the gross domestic product of Portugal - that the industry will never be the same again. Others say it's big enough that the companies will never have to pay.

However it ends up, industry observers say the Florida decision is a good example of how dramatically society has changed the way it views cigarettes. They may be a legal product - but the producers have to be responsible for the damage they have caused.

"This is a trend that is reasonably new, and this case will accelerate it," says Clifford Douglas, an outside co-counsel in the trial.

If the Florida judgment survives the appeals process, it could have wide-ranging implications for smokers. They're likely to have to pay a lot more for each pack of cigarettes. Raising prices is almost the only way the companies, which remain profitable, can afford these huge damage awards.

At the same time, the companies may be forced to change their marketing techniques to convince future juries that they have changed their ways. Already, they have been forced to admit in court that their product is harmful and addictive. Will they be forced to add these words to the outside of the cigarette pack?

The Florida mega-award comes at a sensitive time for the industry in Washington. Congress is poised next year to review the issue of Food and Drug Administration oversight of tobacco. The companies are also gearing up to fight a massive lawsuit by the Department of Justice over whether they should be forced to reimburse the government for smoking-related Medicare costs.

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