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There are lots of questions surrounding the Justice Department's huge lawsuit against tobacco companies. But whether the suit was "politically-correct extortion" -- as the industry claims -- is not one of them.

The Clinton administration has been after the industry for years both legislatively and through regulatory proposals, and when that tack failed even warned of a lawsuit early this year.

Rather than politics, any questions have to do purely with the administration's novel legal approach, which relies on laws never before used in this way.

The Justice Department is using the Federal Medical Care Recovery Act and another obscure federal law to recoup the costs of treating Medicare recipients, armed services personnel, government employees and other victims of smoking whose health-care costs are paid for by federal dollars.

However, the statutes have only been used until now to recover costs in individual cases. The key question -- which experts split on -- is whether the courts will allow Justice lawyers to "aggregate" the individual claims into one massive case to bludgeon the industry with.

Since the statutes do not expressly prohibit such an approach, it certainly is worth trying. If nothing else, it will give the industry something to think about and might make tobacco peddlers more amenable to a suitable settlement.

Even more threatening is the administration's invocation of the powerful Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. It was first used against organized crime but more recently has been deployed against corrupt businesses and even anti-abortion criminals.

If found liable under RICO, the industry would have to "disgorge" past profits obtained illegally and pay damages. In other words, tobacco officials would have to cough up billions for acting like gangsters who sowed death and illness by misleading the public.

Given that the government itself has long subsidized tobacco, the industry is sure to cite Washington as a co-conspirator in any "racket." But the government has never tried to hide the dangers of smoking or lured vulnerable children. Only the tobacco industry has done that.

That makes this industry ripe for one more effort to recoup the health costs taxpayers have borne, and to win some regulatory concessions after efforts to curb Big Tobacco failed to gain traction in the Republican-led Congress.

It will be interesting to see if members of Congress try to deny the department the $20 million it seeks to bring this suit. Standing up for an industry in which lying and preying on children was standard operating procedure and opposing an effort to recoup billions in public money would be an awkward stance, even for members hooked on industry campaign contributions.

But if Congress won't fund it, the administration should find the money someplace within existing budgets because -- barring serious industry concessions -- this is a suit that deserves to be tried.

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