Europe takes on tobacco
Inspired by success in US courts, lawyers from Finland to France are filing suits.
Even as they continue to fight off lawsuits at home, US tobacco firms are coming under attack on a new front: Europe.Skip to next paragraph
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Across the Continent, from Finland to Spain, smokers inspired by court cases in America are launching groundbreaking litigation against tobacco companies, claiming damages for the harm that they say cigarettes did to their health. While only a handful of cases have yet come to court, the first successful action could trigger a snowball effect, tobacco executives and antismoking activists agree. "If I win, the tobacco companies will be in a horrible tunnel," warns Francis Caballero, the lawyer who has brought the first such suit in France on behalf of a former smoker's widow.
"It will open the door" to similar suits, says Aneta Lazarevic, spokeswoman for Seita, the French cigarette company that is the defendant in the case. And waiting in the wings are European health-insurance companies and public- health boards, already toting up the huge costs of treating smoking-related illness and planning to reclaim that money from big tobacco.
These new legal challenges only add to tobacco companies' difficulties in Europe. Cigarette consumption has been dropping steadily throughout the Continent, with nearly 10 percent fewer Europeans smoking than 10 years ago. And under stiff new European Union regulations, all tobacco advertising of any description, on billboards, in the press, or event sponsorship, will be banned by 2006.
European governments have been imposing controls on tobacco manufacturers for nearly 30 years. But it was the success that US state governments had last year, when they won $206 billion from the tobacco industry, that spurred European lawyers to take a similar tack. "Europe is by and large 10 to 15 years behind America, but it is taking exactly the same route," says Friedrich Wiebel, head of the Munich-based German Medical Action Group.
Some lawyers are taking more than inspiration from their American counterparts, they are taking advice. Hugh Ward, a partner in a Dublin, Ireland, law firm that has filed preliminary court documents on behalf of more than 50 cancer patients who are former smokers, this week invited attorneys who were involved in the US battles to a meeting in Dublin.
"Rather than reinvent the wheel, we will follow their example," Mr. Ward says. Others got the idea in a more roundabout way. Gustavo Cirac, a lawyer in Barcelona, Spain, was inspired by his victory in a case on behalf of a pig farmer who sued his local electricity company when 100 of his animals suffocated in their sties during an unannounced power cut.
"We won because the company did not warn the farmer of the power cut," Mr. Cirac says. "To my mind, it is exactly the same situation when a cigarette company does not warn smokers that they are selling them death." Health warnings were first printed on Spanish cigarette packs only in the 1980s, and still carry no notice of cigarettes' addictive properties.