DOJ's Tobacco Settlement Talks Surprise Some

The Justice Department's decision Tuesday to take steps to settle its lawsuit against the tobacco industry caught many off guard -- including cigarette manufacturers, health advocates and lawmakers.

Some health advocates said they were worried the administration will not seek a strong settlement. And tobacco companies signaled they were not about to charge to the settlement table.

``We will not settle this lawsuit for any amount of money,'' said Seth Moskowitz, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., based in North Carolina.

Philip Morris Inc., the nation's largest cigarette manufacturer, reiterated in a statement that the lawsuit was without merit.''

Justice Department officials told Fox News Tuesday that Attorney General John Ashcroft had decided to enter settlement negotiations with tobacco companies as the lawsuit continues to wind its way through the courts.

The Justice Department negotiating team will consist of three career attorneys from the Civil Division. Those attorneys spent the day meeting with Justice Department trial lawyers who have been litigating the tobacco lawsuit.

Officials said Ashcroft's decision was based on the recommendation from career Justice Department employee Stuart Schiffer, the acting Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Division.