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Today’s St. Petersburg Times reports: There’s a nasty war out there. One poised to escalate once again. It is the conflict with the tobacco industry.

It’s a battle fought in the courts nationwide and, as we will see more and more, in developing countries desperate to curtail tobacco addiction among their own people.

In what the media at first called a big victory for the tobacco industry, the Florida Supreme Court on July 6 unanimously upheld the reversal of the $145-billion punitive damages verdict awarded to 700,000 ailing Florida smokers. The original class action suit, Howard Engle, et al. vs. Liggett Group et al., was filed a dozen years ago on behalf of Miami Beach pediatrician Howard Engle and five other lead plaintiffs. They claimed they could not stop smoking because they were addicted to nicotine.

“The trends are incredibly favorable,” Martin L. Holton III, deputy general counsel for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, told Business Week magazine after the Florida decision this month.

Holton may be missing a bigger point. A new wave of legal assaults against the cigarette industry is coming. While the Florida Supreme Court blessed the dropping of huge punitive damages, it acknowledged that cigarette manufacturers are negligent and that their products are defective, addictive and a cause of 16 major diseases.

That’s fresh ammunition for the next wave of individual litigation, according to the Tobacco Products Liability Project, part of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University in Boston.

“We expect tens of thousands of streamlined cases to be filed in Florida by this time next year,” project attorney Edward Sweda says.

In all these big numbers, let’s not forget the Florida Supreme Court reversed an appeals court and upheld awards to two Florida plaintiffs. Mary Farnan of Inglis, stricken with cancer and living with an oxygen machine in her living room, was entitled to $2.9-million. New Port Richey’s Angie Della Vecchia, now deceased, was entitled to $4-million, the court said.

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