A Big Stink Over Nicotine

With the DNAP case, Justice's probe is now a criminal affair

The 1998 Tobacco War is on. In the first criminal case arising from its probe of cigarette makers, the Justice Dept. has accused DNA Plant Technology Corp. (DNAP) of helping an unnamed tobacco company develop a high-nicotine plant it could use to boost nicotine levels in its cigarettes. On Jan. 7, the Oakland (Calif.) biotechnology company pleaded guilty to violating a law banning export of tobacco seeds from the U.S. And Justice says DNAP will now cooperate in the broader federal investigation of Big Tobacco, which includes at least four separate probes.

Though court papers did not identify the company that it called an unindicted co-conspirator, BAT Industries PLC's Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. acknowledged it was the one. The Louis-ville company declined to comment on the Justice action, but said its intention in developing the new plant "was never to manipulate nicotine in order to raise nicotine levels in commercial cigarettes."

DOUBLE TROUBLE. The guilty plea comes just as Congress is set to debate legislation to approve the $368.5 billion deal between the industry and state attorneys general reached last summer. The proposal would give tobacco companies some protection from litigation over the deaths and health-care costs related to smoking. "It makes it extremely difficult for Congress to give these guys civil immunity when you have, down the street, another branch of government going after them criminally," says Richard A. Daynard, chairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Boston's Northeastern University.

According to documents, DNAP agreed in 1983 to develop tobacco with nicotine at double the strength of other strains. Between 1984 and 1991, the project was moved to Brazil, where the company had an affiliate. Justice said officials of both DNAP and the tobacco company shipped the seed or carried it with them on trips to Brazil, violating the export ban.

The export law may be an obscure way to haul cigarette makers into court. But its use shows how determined U.S. prosecutors are in the Tobacco Wars.

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