A Justice Department decision to seek $10 billion for a stop-smoking program in its suit against the country’s leading tobacco companies, instead of the $130 billion suggested by one of its expert witnesses, set off a firestorm on Wednesday.
Several Democratic lawmakers with a longtime interest in smoking and health issues attacked the department for what they said was a politically motivated decision, as did public health groups.
Judge Gladys Kessler of Federal District Court, who is presiding in the trial here against the companies, took note of the sudden change, telling the court on Wednesday, “Perhaps it suggests that additional influences have been brought to bear on what the government’s case is.”
The move infuriated lawmakers who have long been critics of the tobacco industry. “It reeks of an administration whose heart isn’t really in this case,” said Senator Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, at a news conference with other Democrats who suggested that Justice Department officials with ties to the tobacco industry might have grown uncomfortable with a large financial demand as part of the government’s case against the companies.
The payments are intended to finance a stop-smoking program that a government witness said would cost $130 billion over 25 years. In court on Tuesday, a government lawyer, Stephen D. Brody, said the government would ask for a program costing only $10 billion to be paid out over five years.