AUGUSTA — Maine’s attorney general says an arbitration panel has blocked an effort by tobacco companies to reclaim about $50 million owed to the state under a 1998 settlement.

Janet Mills says the panel of three retired federal judges made the decision Wednesday.

Under the settlement, Maine and other states got annual cash payments from tobacco companies. In exchange, those states dropped lawsuits against companies to cover the costs for treating tobacco-related illness. But Mills says in a statement that beginning in 2003, tobacco companies have withheld some payments because they said the state wasn’t complying with part of the settlement.

Mills says he panel’s decision means that Maine will be able to keep the $44 million already paid to the state and get about $5 million more from the companies.

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