National cancer experts in Utah are touting the tobacco industry's first defeat in a smoker-death suit and predict the landmark verdict will open a flood of new litigation against cigarette makers.

"This is an incredibly important finding. Cigarette-manufacturing companies for years and years have never admitted openly that their product results in loss of health," said Dr. Harmon J. Eyre, president of the American Cancer Society and University of Utah professor of medicine."They (he companies) spend nearly $3 billion a year on advertising, and all they do is put the box warning label on cigarette packs. Now they will have to warn people of the dangers in a much more open way than they have done in the past," he said.

Following a four-month trial, the jury in Newark, N.J., Monday found Liggett Group Inc. liable for failing to warn the public about the dangers of its products, Chesterfield and L&M filter cigarettes. But in another crucial part of its civil ruling, jurors exonerated the Liggett Group Inc., Lorillard Inc. and Philip Morris Inc. of conspiring to mislead the public about the dangers of smoking.

The lawsuit was brought by Antonio Cipollone, whose wife, Rose, a smoker for 40 years, died of lung cancer at age 58 in

1984. He was awarded $400,000 damages but no punitive damages. The jury also held that Mrs. Cipollone bore 80 percent of the blame for her own death.

The damage award comes from the jury's finding that Liggett violated its promise to consumers to make a safe product and contributed to Mrs. Cipollone's illness in that way.

It was the first time a tobacco company has been found liable for contributing to a smoker's death, and reaction to the decision was understandably mixed.

Lawyers for the cigarette makers played down the jury's decision, insisting they will get this first verdict against them reversed on appeal. And attorneys for the co-defedants said the size of the award "doesn't even cover the plaintiff attorneys' witness fees. This verdict sends a message to all plaintiff attorneys that these cases are not worth pursuing," they said in a written statement.

Laurie Morin, executive director of the Tobacco Products Liability Project in Boston, which helps plaintiffs and attorneys bring lawsuits against tobacco companies, called the jury's decision "a breakthrough."

"I think you'll see more cases being filed," she said. "A lot of attorneys and plaintiffs have been sitting around waiting to see what happens to this case."

The case attracted wide attention from the news media, anti-smoking activists and industry analysts because of the barrage of previously unreleased documents Marc Z. Edell, a lawyer for Cipollone, used in his case, including internal company memos going back 40 years.

Dr. John H. Holbrook, associate professor of internal medicine at the U. of U. and consultant to the U.S. surgeon general on smoking, said Edell used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to private company documents.

Because of pretrial rulings, Edell and other lawyers will be able to use them in other cases.

Holbrook said older smokers in particular will benefit from Monday's landmark decision.

"The older smoker became addicted to the product before the harmful effects were known," he said. It wasn't until 1966 that tobacco companies were required to put health warnings on cigarette packages.

"Before then, cigarette companies did everything in their power to sow seeds of doubt about possible risks. For the older smokers this is an important day because the tobacco companies will have to face the damages their products produce," Holbrook said.

The result: The prices of cigarettes may double or triple.