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R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. abruptly fired 26 biochemists in 1970 and halted a confidential research project that was suggesting a possible link between smoking and lung disease, a newspaper reported Saturday.

In the first segment of a three-part series, the News & Record of Greensboro said that while the Winston-Salem-based tobacco company steadfastly maintained that cigarettes were not harmful, it was conducting tests on the effects of smoking on mice, rats and rabbits in a state-of-the-art laboratory dubbed "the mouse house."The events that occurred 22 years ago inside the Reynolds laboratory could have a large impact on future lawsuits against tobacco companies, the newspaper said.

Attorneys for diseased and dying smokers are exploring what happened with Reynolds' biological research program in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that cigarette companies may be sued for fraud if they hid knowledge of smoking's harm from the public.

Reynolds officials told the News & Record that the biochemists were fired and the research was ended largely because the animal testing could be done more economically at universities or by an industry-funded group, the Council for Tobacco Research.

A top Reynolds officials told the newspaper the laboratory was rudimentary and was not capable of producing sound scientific findings.

"We were not at a point where we could do a valid experiment," said Sam Simmons, one of the fired biochemists who was rehired by Reynolds in 1984 and is now the company's director of smoking and health.

The series culminated a two-month investigation in which the paper said it also discovered:

- Some of the fired Reynolds biochemists think they lost their jobs because the company feared their research could be used against it in court.

"I strongly suspect we were fired because anything we were doing was subject to subpoena," said Joseph Bumgarner.

Anthony Colucci, another one of the biochemists, is still bitter about being fired in 1970 after working for 14 years at R.J. Reynolds.

"I'm a scientist who says: `It's about time they quit this charade. I'm sick and tired of the way they distort and ignore science. It's time for them to tell the truth,' " he said.

Colucci said the company knew just what it was doing when it shut down the "mouse house."

"The decision to shut it down was made because Reynolds did not at that time want to be collecting information that might be detrimental to itself - which would be telling the public what its product does," he said. "Ignorance is bliss."

- A confidential Reynolds report obtained by the News & Record confirmed that company researchers were studying tobacco smoke's effect on the lungs.

- Colucci was questioned in April by Marc Edell, who represented the family of Rose Cipol-lone in a lawsuit against several tobacco companies. A jury awarded her family $400,000 - the first loss in more than 320 lawsuits against the tobacco industry - but it was overturned on appeal.