Big Tobacco Under the Hot Lights

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WASHINGTON: The Big Five tobacco companies are a wary cartel: always in competition but still bound together, in charge of the same pot of gold. Now one of them is going under the hot lights, giving them all a new reason to be nervous. Brown & Williamson Tobacco was the "unindicted co-conspirator" in the guilty plea Wednesday of a California biotech firm called DNAP, which was convicted of breeding high-nicotine tobacco plants (illegal under U.S. law) and smuggling seeds out of the country to be farmed in Brazil.

For DNAP, a misdemeanor violation of an obscure "seed export" law. But these are the first criminal charges to emerge from the Justice Department's 3-year-old tobacco investigation. And now they've got somebody's collar. "They're sweating B&W," says TIME Justice Department Correspondent Elaine Shannon. "And that means everybody's sweating." Just like each of the tobacco giants all have "safe", low-nicotine cigarettes in development in case they're needed, each of them is ready with a high-nicotine smoke, Shannon says; they would never let one of them have it to themselves. Except they all denied it to the government, and that's a criminal offense. "The more Justice gets from B&W, the more dirt it gets on the rest of them," Shannon says. "There are a lot of tobacco lawyers that just went on the clock today."