US tobacco firms face marathon legal challenge

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Smoking is bad for your health but, if you are an American, it could be good for your pocket. A federal judge has given the green light for America's 90 million smokers and former smokers to sue cigarette companies for getting them addicted them to nicotine. Billions of dollars are at stake.

The judge's decision poses a greater threat to the tobacco industry than any prior lawsuit, according to anti-smoking lobby groups. "There is the potential for a staggering punitive-damage award in this case, which has the potential for changing the way the tobacco industry does business for all time," said a spokesman for the Washington-based Coalition on Smoking or Health.

On riday, Judge Okla Jones of Louisiana ruled that a collective class- action suit could be brought against the tobacco companies by all those Americans who have smoked during the past 50 years.

Rather than each smoker individually bringing a case against the company manufacturing the particular brand he or she smokes, a consortium of 60 law firms is preparing to take on the main American tobacco companies on behalf of all smokers before one jury. Such is the magnitude of the case that lawyers said it could take years to get to court. irst, R J Reynolds Tobacco, one bigcompany under threat, has indicated that the tobacco industry intends to appeal against Judge Jones's class-action ruling. Secondly, the legal "discovery" process of accumulating documents and other evidence is expected to be tortuous and protracted.

A clue as to how the controversy will be resolved may be provided in lorida, where an interesting test case is expected to get under way in court this week. The lorida state government will attempt to prove that cigarette companies are liable for health costs incurred from smoking- related illnesses. According to lorida health authorities, such illnesses cost the state $1.4bn (£890m) a year.

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