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Tobacco firms accused of hiking nicotine level

WASHINGTON -- The tobacco industry tried to discredit a former head of the Food and Drug Administration yesterday after he backed up the government's assertion that cigarette-makers manipulated nicotine levels to hook smokers.

The Justice Department alleges in its $280 billion civil racketeering suit that for decades tobacco companies lied to the public about smoking dangers.

David Bernick, representing Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., asked former FDA commissioner David Kessler whether he was an ''expert in the field of nicotine addiction."

Kessler said he was not.

The cross examination followed written testimony Kessler submitted earlier. In it, he said a 1990s FDA investigation revealed nicotine levels in cigarettes were controlled by the companies. He said the companies managed to keep nicotine levels up, even as they lowered tar levels, by blending different tobacco leaves.

''By choosing higher nicotine tobacco leaves, the companies were able to achieve the desired levels of nicotine," Kessler said.

The government wants new restrictions placed on the industry and is seeking $280 billion it claims the companies earned through the alleged fraud.

The defendants are Philip Morris USA Inc. and its parent, Altria Group Inc.; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.; Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.; British American Tobacco Ltd.; Lorillard Tobacco Co.; Liggett Group Inc.; Counsel for Tobacco Research-U.S.A.; and the Tobacco Institute.

Kessler testified about a kind of tobacco plant that Brown & Willamson grew overseas as an example of a high-nicotine leaf.

But Bernick said the company's goal was to create a cigarette that delivered fewer toxic substances to smokers.

Bernick said the company stopped trying to grow the plant because it didn't appeal to smokers. Kessler said he believed the company abandoned it because of congressional inquiries.

Bernick also tried to discredit Kessler's statements that industry documents indicated ammonia was added to cigarettes to enhance the effects of nicotine.

He acknowledged some industry documents pointed to a theory that ammonia could affect the way nicotine affects smokers, but he said ammonia was not added for that purpose. Instead, he said, it creates certain ''aromatic features of the smoke."

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