TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ A Florida judge today said the state can accuse the tobacco industry of racketeering in a lawsuit filed to recoup $2.4 billion in taxes spent on people who get sick from smoking.

By allowing Florida to contend the tobacco companies violated anti-racketeering laws, the state potentially could win triple damages for money it spends on treating smoking-related ilneeses.

Although other states have charged cigarette makers with racketeering, no other judges have cleared the way to pursue the allegation, according to Tim Howard, a Tallahassee attorney coordinating the state's case.

``No cocaine cartel, gambling empire or white-collar scheme has even approached the damage allegedly done to the state as alleged in the plaintiff's case,'' Palm Beach Circuit Judge Harold Cohen wrote in allowing the state to use its Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization law.

``However, recognizing the stigma an alleged RICO violation carries with it, the court reminds all parties that allegations made and clear and convincing proof are two very different things,'' he added.

Stephen Krigbaum, a West Palm Beach lawyer for one defendant Philip Morris, didn't immediately return a call for comment.

The racketeering counts claim the industry lied to federal officials, committed fraud, illegally marketed its products to children and conspired to deceive the public about the dangers of cigarettes.

Cohen heard arguments last week on the counts filed by Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who attended the hearing with two counterparts pursuing similar suits: Mike Moore from Mississippi and Grant Woods of Arizona.

Arizona and Texas both want to pursue a racketeering charge, but judges have not yet ruled on whether they can do so. At least 17 states are suing tobacco companies over the public costs of smoking-related illnesses.

Florida is trying to recoup an estimated $800 million in annual expenses for treating sick smokers since July 1994.