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Last Updated: Monday, 14 January 2008, 00:23 GMT
Nigeria takes on tobacco giants
By Andrew Walker
Nigeria analyst

Nigeria's government is suing three international tobacco firms for $44bn (22bn) - the first such case in the developing world - due to start in the capital, Abuja.

An African child pretending to smoke [Pic: ROBYN HUNTER]
Smoking at a young age is a problem across Africa
It says tobacco manufacturers are putting unacceptable pressure on the country's health services, and companies are targeting younger and younger people in an attempt to replace former smokers in Europe and America.

British American Tobacco (BAT), Philip Morris and International Tobacco Ltd, deny the claims and say they are socially responsible companies who do not target children.

They question the massive sums demanded by the government and say the case "has no merit".

But government lawyers are convinced they have a strong case.

E-mails between tobacco firm employees to be shown to the court in the capital Abuja will reveal deliberate attempts to increase the number of "young and underage" smokers and attempts to influence lawmakers to keep tobacco sales unregulated, they say.

Documents we have refer to ways of increasing the number of 'YAUS' [Young And Underage Smokers] in Nigeria
Babatunde Irukera
Government lawyer

Four Nigerian state governments also plan to go to court early in 2008 to argue similar cases.

Cigarette smoking is widespread in Nigeria and BAT recently set up a factory in the West African country.

Campaigners in Nigeria say children are sent positive messages about smoking all the time.

And young people across Nigeria can buy cigarettes from vendors in single "sticks", which campaigners say makes it easier for young people to pick up the habit.

The World Health Organization estimates that 18% of young Nigerians smoke - storing up huge potential health problems in a country of 140 million people, most of whom are under 20.

Dossier

"If this case gets to the evidence stage, the companies are dead on arrival," says Babatunde Irukera, prosecuting the case for the government.

"We expect they will try to delay the case by questioning the jurisdiction of the court. But if they see that they're in trouble we expect them to try and settle out of court."

We haven't got a clue where the government got the amount they are asking for
Catherine Armstrong, BAT
He says they have a dossier of evidence that runs to 3,000 pages consisting of internal company e-mails discussing how to target children and influence lawmakers in Nigeria.

"Documents we have refer to ways of increasing the number of 'YAUS' in Nigeria. We have expert testimony that says YAUS means 'Young And Underage Smokers'," he said.

The e-mails come from a public depository of evidence uncovered during a series of class-action lawsuits across the US.

Many of those cases have been initially successful, but litigants have seen payouts slashed or kicked out on appeal.

In 2000 a Florida court awarded $145bn damages to hundreds of thousands of smokers, but the case was thrown out on appeal.

The Florida supreme court said making such an award would "result in an unlawful crippling of the defendant companies".

Poor hospitals

Nigerian public hospitals are chaotic, poorly funded places where equipment is often out of date or broken.

Corruption and inefficiency are also responsible for the overload on the health service.

Tobacco company lawyers may argue there is little evidence that the government has been taking responsibility for its own health services.

"We haven't got a clue where the government got the amount they are asking for. Much of what they claim doesn't add up," said British American Tobacco spokesperson in London Catherine Armstrong.

The company says they have been operating in Nigeria since the early 1900s and has never targeted children.

"It is false to suggest that tobacco companies have had a knee-jerk reaction to falling markets elsewhere in the world," Ms Armstrong said.

The tobacco firms expect legal arguments to go on for "years and years", she added.

Counter-productive

But anti-smoking campaigners say children are definitely the targets of marketing campaigns.

Cigarette companies sponsor fashion shows and music concerts, said Eze Eluchie of People Against Drug Dependence and Ignorance (Paddi), a Lagos-based organisation.

"They have something called an 18-plus programme, which they say tries to prevent young people from taking up smoking. But when 16- and 17-year-olds see that, it makes them think smoking is grown-up. It's counter-productive," he said.

Whatever happens with the court case, the government is already trying to curb the spread of smoking.

Cigarette adverts have been restricted - only allowed on radio and TV after 2200 and billboards have been scrapped.

The authorities in the capital, Abuja, are also considering a smoking ban in public places.



VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Background to the legal action



SEE ALSO
Smoking curbs: The global picture
01 Jun 07 |  Special Reports
Country profile: Nigeria
16 Oct 07 |  Country profiles
Why do we smoke?
31 May 06 |  Africa
BAT cash round reaches Nigeria
24 Sep 01 |  Business
Q&A: Anti-smoking treaty
21 May 03 |  Health

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