When seven top tobacco company executives testified under oath last month that nicotine is not addictive and that their products have not been proved to cause death and serious disease, tempers in the House hearing room grew uncomfortably hot.

Things have gotten a lot hotter since then.

Recently, internal company documents leaked to Congress and the press have indicated that senior executives at Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., America's third-largest cigarette company, had evidence of nicotine's addictive nature 31 years ago -- more than two decades before the surgeon general made that official declaration -- and had conducted research indicating that cigarettes cause heart disease, cancer and other ailments.

Moreover, the documents apparently show that corporate officials hid research that might have damaged them in the courts, even though the fruits of that research might have saved lives.

The Brown & Williamson documents, which will be explored in detail in congressional hearings scheduled to be held Tuesday by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), come amid a rush of damaging information about tobacco company practices.

Those documents, along with similar disclosures that have surfaced recently, experts say, could change dramatically the way tobacco is regulated by the federal government and the future of lawsuits against cigarette manufacturers.

Scott D. Ballin, head of the Coalition on Smoking OR Health, said that the recent revelations, along with industry practices unearthed in the product liability lawsuits like the one brought by the family of smoker Rose Cipollone, show that, "These are not isolated incidents. It's almost as if there were a concerted and coordinated effort by the industry to protect itself."

Attorneys involved in tobacco liability suits said that the Brown & Williamson documents will give new plaintiffs a boost, and might even have changed the outcome of high-profile tobacco industry wins such as the Cipollone case. "David's time against Goliath has come," said Russ Herman, a New Orleans attorney who has joined 50 other law firms to mount a class action suit against tobacco companies, focusing on the addiction isssue. "We finally got some stones in the sling."

Brown & Williamson said that the documents in question were stolen by a former employee. Company spokesman Tom Fitzgerald said yesterday that "it is our belief that anybody who knowingly uses stolen information is in fact contributing to an illegal act. It's disturbing to us that the media would allow itself to be an accomplice to that."

Waxman would not comment directly on the documents, but said the reports show that "if you compare the information as to what they knew and when they knew it with what they had to say a few weeks ago before the Congress of the United States, it's pretty amazing."

The cornucopia of industry information -- scheduled to increase next week if tobacco companies make available tons of documents requested by Congress -- also could lead to more pressure for regulation by the Food and Drug Administration.

Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a longtime critic of cigarette manufacturers, said that, "If the tobacco industry withheld scientific evidence showing that cigarette smoking is harmful to the public, if the tobacco executives had reason to know that nicotine was addictive, and if the executives made decisions harmful to public health to insulate themselves from civil liability, that will provide fresh ammunition for the cause of sensible regulation of cigarettes."

In March, Food and Drug Commissioner David A. Kessler testified at length before Waxman's subcommittee that the FDA was considering regulating tobacco products as drugs, and brought out 30 years of documents and patent applications showing the industry's ability to manipulate the levels of nicotine in cigarettes.

Then in April, two former scientists for Philip Morris Co. told a House panel that their studies on rats more than a decade ago indicated that nicotine was highly addictive. The laboratory also was working on drugs that could give nicotine's kick without its harmful cardiovascular effects. Philip Morris kept the scientists from publishing the research and abruptly closed down their lab in 1984.

The Brown & Williamson documents were first described in the New York Times, which said its copies came from a government official. The Washington Post subsequently acquired many of the documents.

Effects of Nicotine

Some of the earliest Brown & Williamson papers, dating from the early 1960s, paint a picture of a soul-searching debate in the industry over whether to disclose the dangers of smoking, including lung cancer and heart problems, that were being coming to light in company-sponsored research.

Addison Yeaman, B&W's general counsel at the time and now retired, wrote a letter dated June 28, 1963, to Anthony D. McCormick, an executive at B&W's English parent company, British American Tobacco PLC (BAT), discussing how much company-sponsored research should be shared with then-Surgeon General Luther Terry, who was preparing the first in a long line of reports describing the health risks of tobacco products.

A BAT-sponsored research report, code-named "HIPPO" and prepared by Batelle Laboratories of Geneva, had found that nicotine had benefits such as a tranquilizing effect and appetite suppression, but had been linked to cardiovascular problems. McCormick sent a July 3, 1963, cable telling Yeaman "it is too early" to share the information with the surgeon general; Yeaman responded with a cable agreeing that taking the research to the surgeon general was "undesirable," apparently ending the industry's potential openness initiative.

One of the documents from that time was a lengthy, blunt memo by Yeaman dated July 17, 1963. The memo recommended protecting the industry and "its present earnings position" by sponsoring unbiased research into smoking's health effects. Yeaman said that the industry-funded Tobacco Research Council "has functioned as a public relations operation."

Yeaman predicted smoking would be linked to lung cancer and cardiovascular disorders as well as emphysema and other conditions. He called for "a massive and impressively financed" research effort to either disprove smoking's health hazards or to find and "neutralize" carcinogenic substances in cigarettes. "{T}o accept its responsibility would, I suggest, free the industry to take a much more aggressive posture to meet attack," and to meet criticism with credible research of its own.

The Yeaman memo exhorted the company to develop filters that could eliminate the disease-causing elements of the cigarette "while delivering full flavor -- and incidentally -- a nice jolt of nicotine." Yeaman added that "if we are the first to be able to make and sustain that claim, what price Kent?"

Government officials said that B&W shared its research with other tobacco companies, and the Yeaman documents indicate that the health information was shared with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

Repeated calls to Yeaman's house in Louisville were not answered.

Manipulation Denied

Ever since the FDA suggested in February that it might reverse a decades-old policy against regulating tobacco products as drugs, one of the thorniest questions has been whether the industry routinely manipulates the levels of nicotine in cigarettes to create and maintain addiction in smokers.

In its May 10 statement, Brown & Williamson denied that it does anything in the manufacture of its tobacco products that increases the level of nicotine above that naturally found in the tobacco plant, nor does it artificially increase nicotine. The FDA has said that since companies have the technology to take nicotine out, putting significant amounts back in could constitute manipulation and thus be subject to federal regulation.

The company's internal documents show a detailed grasp of nicotine manipulation techniques at B&W. A report by BAT scientist R.B. Griffith (marked "strictly confidential" and addressed to "Executive Committee") of a meeting held July 1, 1965, discusses tests performed at the Tobacco Research Council laboratory in Britain.

Griffith wrote that researchers were experimenting with cigarettes that reduce the "biological activity" of smoke: "Their approach seems to be to find ways of obtaining maximum nicotine for minimum tar." The memo goes on to describe four methods of achieving this goal, including addition of nicotine to tobacco or to the cigarette papers, as well as altering the blends. Griffith said the scientists in Britain believed their animal studies showed that smoke is "weakly carcinogenic."

The company apparently showed special concern that research on the biological effects of tobacco might become the focus of later product liability lawsuits. A Nov. 9, 1979, letter from then-corporate counsel J.K. Wells III to company executive Ernest Pepples, marked "may be opened and seen by addressee only," suggested ways to handle BAT scientific reports "in a way that would afford some degree of protection against discovery" in case of lawsuits. Wells suggested that reports "which were relevant to smoking and health, or otherwise sensitive," be separated for "special handling" for a company consultant, thus affording the documents a degree of protection similar to attorney-client privilege.

In a January 1985 "file note" about how to handle engineering and scientific reports held by the company's research department, Wells wrote that he had marked certain documents with an X for disposal -- "deadwood in the behavioral and biological studies area." Wells wrote that he and another executive, Earl Kohnhorst of the B&W research department, discussed shipping the documents to the parent company in Britain, but "I suggested that Earl tell his people that this was part of an effort to remove deadwood from the files and that neither he nor anyone else in the department should make any notes, memos or lists."

Matt Myers, a Washington lawyer and former head of the Coalition on Smoking OR Health who has reviewed the documents, said that the memos concerning overseas research and protection of documents point out "a consistent pattern of keeping this information outside of the United States solely to preserve their ability to deny its existence and their awareness of it." Copies of the Brown & Williamson documents were also given to Wyden, and Wyden passed them on to Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on health and the environment. Congressional staff aides said that Waxman has two boxes of such documents.

Brown & Williamson has said the documents initially were stolen from the company by Merrell Williams, a former paralegal with a Louisville law firm hired by the tobacco company to screen the documents.

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Williams, who "says he has heart disease caused by cigarette smoking, hoped to use the documents to prove that cigarette companies have conspired to hide the dangers of smoking from consumers."

Williams later returned the documents under court order, but Brown & Williamson has alleged that Williams made the copies that since have been distributed. The Post was unable to locate Williams, who reportedly no longer resides in Kentucky.

In a statement released May 10, Brown & Williamson responded to news reports of the leaked papers, saying that "select portions of documents have been quoted out of context in an effort to distort B&W's position."

"It has always been B&W's position -- and still is -- that cigarette smoking is not addictive under the standards set forth in the 1964 Surgeon General's Report," the company statement said. "Calculated misrepresentations of the company's position merely encourage ill-informed grandstanding."

Seller's Intent

The Brown & Williamson papers and House testimony by the Philip Morris scientists could add to pressure to bring the tobacco industry under federal regulation. Under the FDA's rules, a key to regulating a product turns on the seller's intent: If the seller thinks the product is a drug -- that is, sells the product "to affect the structure and function of the body" or to mitigate and prevent disease -- then the agency has jurisdiction.

Yeaman's freewheeling memo of July 17, 1963 -- its language in stark contrast to the careful wording of company press interviews and congressional testimony -- contains the bald statement that "We are, then, in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug effective in the release of stress mechanisms."

An FDA official said that Yeaman's admission that the companies sell a drug that delivers "a nice jolt of nicotine" could lift the debate over regulation out of the realm of the theoretical and the circumstantial questions raised by the agency's first letter on the subject released last February.

One FDA official said that while the agency had not analyzed the documents yet, statements reported to be in the Brown & Williamson documents "move the issue forward -- not by a little, but by a very significant amount. This becomes very serious."

Experts in tobacco litigation say the recent disclosures also could reshape the legal landscape, setting off a new generation of product liability suits against tobacco companies.

Richard Daynard, head of the Tobacco Products Liability Project, called the new information "damning." Plaintiffs lost the Cipollone case, but Daynard said the Brown & Williamson papers could well have changed the outcome of that trial. "The addiction issue had rough sledding in the Cipollone trial," Daynard said, and "four of the six jurors blamed Cipollone for continuing to smoke." Had the B&W papers been available, Daynard said, "This would have solved it. After these documents, nobody can doubt -- their own general counsel said it was addictive."

"They can't blow them away on the basis that 'he's some mad scientist working in a lab and we never believed anything he said' -- this is a senior corporate official," Daynard said.

Ballin of the Coalition on Smoking OR Health agreed, and added that the suggestion that the industry might have hidden information could lead to a broader cause of action than the question of whether the company did not properly warn consumers of the risks of smoking. Instead, Ballin said, the internal papers appear to be part of a growing body of evidence that could lead to suits alleging fraud and coverup. "I think that has the industry rather petrified," Ballin said.

Daynard and other attorneys see the trend in suits as moving away from single-plaintiff litigation and toward greater use of class action lawsuits that could force all manufacturers to share reponsibility. "To take on the tobacco industry in individual lawsuits in individual states is an impossible job," said Stanley M. Rosenblatt, a Miami attorney who has filed the initial complaint for a class action tobacco suit.

The proposed $4.25 billion breast implant settlement has become a model for resolving complex product liability suits, Daynard said, but added that in the case of tobacco, "$5 billion won't cover it. We're talking real money."