The action, announced by the city's Republican mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, will deepen the shadow that has been castover the tobacco industry by the serial lawsuits pending in the United States and by anti-smoking regulations approved by the Clinton administration.
New York is the largest US city to challenge the tobacco companies in court and the first on America's east coast. Other cities to have acted already include Los Angeles and San Francisco. Prominent among the 16 states to have filed lawsuits are Florida and Minnesota.
The defendants in the lawsuits include British American Tobacco (BAT), whose largest US tobacco subsidiary is Brown & Williamson. Defeat in any one of the cases could cost BAT and the other companies, including Philip Morris, billions of dollars in damages.
There was some relief at Brown & Williamson last night, however, after a federal judge in Lousiana threw out a case lodged against the company by the son of a former smoker with lung cancer. The lawsuit accused the company of failing to provide sufficient warning of the dangers of tobacco use.
Pressure on Mr Giuliani to take the litigation path has come from a group of health interests, known as the Coalition for a Smoke-Free City. The group had been frustrated that the state of New York, under the leadership of Republican governor, George Pataki, had declined to go to the courts on the issue.
In a letter written to the Mayor, the coalition argued: "The tobacco cartel has lied and misled the public about the dangers of tobacco addiction for decades. New York City's healthcare bill attributed to tobacco addiction exceeds $2bn annually. Recovering these costs from the tobacco cartel would be popular, fair and a major boost to the City's treasury."
The significance of the lawsuit was underscored by Richard Daynard, chairman of the influential Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University in Boston. "New York is not only the largest city to file, it's larger than most of the states that have filed," he said.
By contrast, two important tobacco-growing states, Kentucky and North Carolina, this week joined a lawsuit filed by US cigarette manufacturers against the Clinton administration. The lawsuit challenges the legality of moves by the Food and Drug Administration to reclassify tobacco products as addictive drugs and limit the sales of cigarettes to minors.