UK to sue on tobacco

Tobacco shares in London will face renewed uncertainty next week over threats by UK healthcare organisations to launch class action lawsuits against tobacco companies in the wake of the $370bn (pounds 224bn) settlement deal in the US.

NHS trust managers and members of the British Medical Association gathering for the BMA's annual meeting next week will debate for the first time a resolution calling on British tobacco companies to pay the costs of treating tobacco-related illnesses.

Dr Sandy Macara, chairman of the BMA, said: "I can see no reason whatsoever why hospital trusts should not sue [tobacco companies] on behalf of their patients and force them to make restitution."

Dr Bill O'Neill, the BMA's scientific and research adviser, added: "It costs pounds 610m a year to treat such diseases, and our motion calls on the BMA to support the idea that the National Health Service and regional and local health authorities should be recompensed."

The BMA motion was tabled before Friday's historic peace deal in the US between the cigarette companies and individual US states, which were suing to recover the costs involved in treating smoking related illnesses. It orders tobacco companies to pay $370bn over the next 25 years to victims and for anti-smoking public education campaigns. In return, tobacco companies will have their legal liabilities in the US capped.

Dr O'Neill added that if the motion is passed - in keeping with all other tobacco resolutions put before the BMA during the last 20 years - then the association would take on the task of marshalling the NHS trusts in their class-action suits and provide medical and scientific evidence to support their claims in court.

Ian Birks, spokesman for Gallaher, would not comment on the BMA motion. He played down any notion that the US settlement would affect Gallaher and dismissed the idea that the company would reach any deal with its British opponents. Both Gallaher and Imperial are being sued by a group of British lung cancer victims. "We are not a party to litigation in the USA," said Birks. "As for the UK litigation, we will not settle and will continue to defend ourselves vigorously."