WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ About 100,000 Americans ``might have'' died from smoking-related diseases, the chairman of Philip Morris Cos. conceded today to state lawyers suing his company.

Geoffrey Bible, who is also chief executive of the nation's largest cigarette maker, made the surprise admission at the end of nearly two hours of questioning in preparation for trial of a lawsuit.

Ron Motley, a lawyer representing the state, called Bible's statement a major breakthrough because, except for one maverick, other industry leaders have not made such a concession. Bennett LeBow, chief of the smallest of the major cigarette makers, Liggett Group, has said that cigarettes kill and are addictive.

Members of Congress are pressing the tobacco industry for admissions before they consider approving a $368 billion settlement that would wipe out most lawsuits against the industry.

Florida was the first of 40 states suing the major tobacco companies to bring a case to trial. It seeks $12.3 billion for the public cost of smoking-related illnesses. Jury selection began Aug. 1 but the deposition of Bible was delayed while lawyers squabbled over the ground rules.

Motley asked Bible: ``Would Philip Morris agree that a single American citizen who smokes their products for 30 or more years, a single one, has ever died of a disease caused in part by smoking cigarettes?''

Bible answered, ``I think there's a fair chance that one would have, might have.''

Motley followed up, ``How about a thousand?''

Bible said, ``Might have.''

Motley pressed, ``How about 100,000?''

Bible responded, ``Might have.''

``I salute Philip Morris for the first time in 40 years being forthright and candid,'' Motley said on CNN afterward. ``It's a very public, health-spirited way of looking at things.''

In another industry trial under way in Miami, executives asked the same question about whether one death can be blamed on smoking have said they don't know whether cigarettes kill.

Public health officials estimate 450,000 Americans die each year from illnesses caused by smoking and secondhand smoke.

Responding to allegations that cigarette makers manipulate nicotine levels in cigarettes to capitalize on its addictive qualities, Bible said, ``I wouldn't even let them discuss adding nicotine, let alone adding nicotine to attract children.''

Bible said cigarettes were ``certainly not pharmacologically addictive,'' but that people might get hooked in a ``behavioral'' way. Similarly, Philip Morris president James Morgan in an earlier deposition compared cigarettes' addictiveness with that of his favorite candy, Gummi Bears.

State lawyers have tried to bolster their case by obtaining previously secret industry documents. Bible said he would not agree to turn over documents under the control of Philip Morris' European subsidiaries.

Bible, 60, was asked extensively about comments at the company's annual meeting in Richmond, Va., on April 25, 1996, when he assured shareholders that they would ``win the battle.''

Motley asked him if the battle was between the cigarette industry and public health officials.

Bible said, ``No, I think I would say those people who are anti-tobacco generally,'' including the U.S. surgeon general.

Bible, who smokes the company's best-selling Marlboro brand, earned $3 million plus stock options last year running the company that makes cigarettes, Miller beer and food under the Kraft and General Foods brands.

About half of the company's $69 billion annual revenue comes from cigarettes. Philip Morris makes 2 billion cigarettes a day in the United States, accounting for about 48 percent of the domestic market.

In a related development, 20 state attorneys general have formally asked the White House to exempt Liggett from payments under the proposed tobacco settlement.