TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ In a first for state lawsuits against tobacco companies, a judge ruled today that Florida may accuse the industry of racketeering, meaning damages could reach into the billions of dollars.

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 appointed to coordinate 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 Organizations law.

Cohen's ruling ``will make the Earth shake,'' Howard said.

Florida is trying to recoup an estimated $800 million it has spent each year to treat sick smokers since July 1994. If it prevails on the racketeering count in the suit, scheduled for trial in August, the state could win triple damages.

Calls to industry officials for comment, including Stephen Krigbaum, a West Palm Beach lawyer for Philip Morris, were not immediately returned.

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 on the issue last week at a hearing that also was attended by Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore and Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods.

At least 17 states are suing tobacco companies over the public costs of smoking-related illnesses.