Judge orders R.J. Reynolds to keep paying Florida millions

By BRENDAN FARRINGTON Markets Associated Press

A judge in Florida ordered R.J. Reynolds to continue paying the state millions of dollars in tobacco settlement money despite selling off major brands.

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Circuit Judge Jeffrey Dana Gillen in Palm Beach County issued his ruling Wednesday, nearly a year after Attorney General Pam Bondi sued the tobacco company and Imperial Tobacco Group.

The "ruling will ensure Florida's landmark tobacco settlement is honored and our state receives the money it is owed," Bondi said in a press release. "My office is committed to pursuing all appropriate remedies when companies try to evade their monetary obligations to the State of Florida."

When Bondi filed the suit last January, she said Florida was already owed $45 million and could lose $30 million a year going forward. Gillen said until R.J. Reynolds has its obligation to pay Florida transferred to Imperial Tobacco Group, it must continue to pay. Last summer, London-based British American Tobacco took over North Carolina-based Reynolds American Inc.

R.J. Reynolds spokesman David Howard said in an email that the company wouldn't comment on the lawsuit.

R.J. Reynolds and other large tobacco companies were part of a 1997 multibillion-dollar settlement with Florida to compensate the state for treating sick smokers. But the company sold cigarette brands Kool, Winston, Salem and Maverick to Imperial Tobacco Group in 2015, and neither company continued to make payments to the state.

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Pushed by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, Florida was one of the first states in the U.S. to seek damages from tobacco companies. The state's initial lawsuit sought reimbursement for Medicaid costs in the past and the future and contended that tobacco companies had engaged in unlawful actions and misleading advertising.

Last year, the state was projected to receive more than $350 million from the settlement.