Bennett LeBow is the South Florida financier who stunned the mighty tobacco industry when he broke ranks and starting talking settlement. LeBow controls Brooke Group Ltd., the holding company that owns tobacco company Liggett.
The "Liggett Documents" that LeBow released in 1997 -- over the protesting howls of his colleagues in the industry -- gave the anti-tobacco lawyers powerful ammunition. The documents indicated the industry had committed fraud, several judges found.
Liggett is the smallest of the "Big Five" cigarette makers -- well behind giants like RJR Nabisco and Philip Morris. Liggett manufactures Lark, Chesterfield and L&M cigarettes. LeBow figured he had the most to lose if the industry didn't prevail in court because his company couldn't afford the mega-bucks pay-outs the states were discussing.
LeBow has said he had other reasons for his part in bringing down tobacco. He and others were trying in 1995 to convince RJR to spin off its food division, and investors like LeBow stood to make a mint if that happened. But RJR said the pending tobacco litigation made that unlikely.
LeBow's moral reason for switching sides came when his 7-year-old grandson asked him what he did for a living. He said he sold cigarettes. "You mean like Joe Camel?" the boy asked. "I said, 'Whoa. A 7-year-old kid knows about Joe Camel? There's something dreadfully wrong here,'" LeBow testified in a Washington state lawsuit. In an interview with Frontline in 1998, LeBow said: "I knew it was the right thing to do. ... I see a tobacco company standing up and saying, 'Well, cigarettes don't cause any harmful effects.' What kind of a statement is that? 'Cigarettes are not addictive.' ... What kind of a statement is that? How can they keep doing this?"
Brooke Group's earnings were up in the first quarter of 1999. LeBow earned $4.2 million last year.