As state attorneys general return to their efforts to reach a national tobacco settlement, two leading industry players - R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. - have dropped out of the negotiations.

In the latest effort to settle more than three dozen lawsuits by states seeking to recover Medicaid funds spent treating sick smokers, losing Reynolds and Brown & Williamson, the second and third-largest cigarettemakers, was an unexpected hitch."Apparently, we're down to negotiations with two companies," Fred Olson, a spokesman for Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire, said Wednesday.

Phillip Morris Inc. and Lorillard Tobacco Co. are still involved in the talks, which were to resume Thursday after a three-week recess.

It was unclear why the companies were boycotting the talks or how serious the rift was between the tobacco companies.

Spokesmen for Reynolds and Brown & Williamson declined to comment, as did industry spokesmen in Washington.

Olson said Reynolds and Brown & Williamson refused to cede ground on "public health initiatives that are critical" to the states.

"If and when they want to talk about those terms the attorneys general will welcome them back to the table," he said.

The negotiations are an attempt to salvage a proposed national agreement reached in June 1997 in which Big Tobacco would have paid $368.5 billion over 25 years in return for broad protection from liability suits. That deal collapsed in June in Congress, which had to approve it.