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RICHMOND, Va. -- A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit by Philip Morris USA that sought to invalidate a smaller company's patent for a method of reducing carcinogens in tobacco.

Judge James Spencer of U.S. District Court in Richmond dismissed the suit last week on grounds that a similar, pending case in Maryland could settle the controversy, reports the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch.

Star, a maker of discount cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, was granted a patent in March 2001 for a tobacco-curing process the company says greatly reduces cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines in cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

Two months later, Star filed a patent-infringement lawsuit in a federal district court in Maryland against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the nation's second-largest cigarette company.

That suit, which is pending, contends Reynolds violated the patent by contracting with farmers to produce low-nitrosamine tobacco. Star also sent letters to Philip Morris USA and other tobacco companies warning them not to violate the patent.

Philip Morris, the nation's largest cigarette maker, filed suit against Chester, Va.-based Star in June, seeking to invalidate the patent through a declaratory judgment. Lawyers for the company argued the curing process has been public knowledge for years, the report said.

In his ruling, Spencer wrote that because the case in Maryland "involves identical, or nearly identical, issues it is neither necessary nor proper to issue the declaration in this instance." The case is expected to be heard next year.

Kim Farlow, a spokeswoman for Philip Morris USA, said the ruling did not address the merits of the company's argument, and the company still believes the patent is invalid.

Paul Perito, Star's chairman and chief operating officer, said his company is "very gratified by the court's review of the law regarding Star's rights in protecting its intellectual property."