Cancer widow takes on Spain's tobacco giant

The health issue barely registers in a country still hooked on heavy smoking, says Elizabeth Nash
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THE WIDOW of a lifelong smoker who died of lung cancer at the age of 43 is suing the Spanish state tobacco company Tabacalera for causing the addiction that led to her husband's death. She is claiming pounds 2.5m compensation.

Africa Pulgar's claim is the first in Spain, a tolerant haven for cigarette - and especially cigar - aficionados. Anti-smoking restrictions are rarely observed and non-smokers are often considered an oddity if not downright eccentric.

A recent survey found that 620,000 Spaniards have died of lung cancer and tobacco related illnesses in the last 15 years. Ms Pulgar's action was inspired by claims against tobacco companies in the US.

Emilio Carraminana Puig started smoking Tabacalera's Ducados at 14 and smoked three packets a day until shortly before his death. He gave up in 1991 after huge efforts and fell ill in 1993, says Ms Pulgar, 40, who also smokes. He went into hospital in October 1993, where he was diagnosed as having lung cancer through smoking, and he died a month later.

"They tell you vaguely that there is a risk, but they don't say what. The consumer cannot base a decision on such sparse information," Ms Pulgar says, adding that her husband quit "when he knew the tobacco was doing him harm, but it was too late, the damage was done."

Some 37 per cent of Spaniards smoke: 47 per cent of men and 27 per cent of women - the vast majority under 20. While the number of men smokers is declining, Spanish women are smoking more than ever. Ten years ago, only 16.6 per cent of women smoked. Lung cancer deaths among women have risen by 150 per cent in 15 years, and by 22 per cent among men.

When young Spanish women get together, it is rare to see a single one not elegantly twirling a cigarette. No-smoking signs in the Metro are ignored, smokers exhale over food displays in shops, and proposed no-smoking areas in restaurants are howled down as ruinous for business. The sale of chewing tobacco was banned only three years ago, and cigarette packets did not carry a health warning until 1992.

Belatedly, however, the anti-tobacco lobby in Spain is gaining ground. Last August, the prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, banned smoking in cabinet meetings, a move apparently inspired by Bill Clinton. But it is a brave politician who takes on mighty Tabacalera, which funnels 70 per cent of the price of every packet into state funds. Few would put money on the success of Ms Pulgar's campaign.