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Wednesday, September 22, 1999 Published at 22:05 GMT 23:05 UK

World: Americas

Tobacco giants face legal battle

The United States Justice Department is to launch legal action against American tobacco companies.

The BBC's Stephen Sackur: "The stakes are high"
It aims to recover billions of dollars of taxpayers' money used in the treatment of smoking-related diseases.

US Attorney-General Janet Reno accused the companies of knowing far more than they disclosed about the harmful and addictive effects of smoking.

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The attorney general said: "Smoking is the nation's largest preventable cause of death and disease, and American taxpayers should not have to bear the responsibility for the staggering costs."

"For more than 45 years, the cigarette companies conducted their business without regard to the truth, the law, or the health of the American people."

US Attorney-General Janet Reno: A sustained campaign by the tobacco companies for 45 years
Tobacco companies were first warned that such an action was a possibility when it formed part of President Bill Clinton's State of the Union speech in January.

In a statement issued after Wednesday's announcement of legal action, President Clinton said: "The Justice Department is taking the right course of action.

"It is time for America's taxpayers to have their day in court."

Teens targeted

Ms Reno said the tobacco companies had particularly targeted young people so they would become hooked on nicotine.

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Statistics show that about 3,000 US youngsters take up smoking every day.

In the complaint, the US Government alleges that "for the past 43 years, the companies that manufacture and sell tobacco have waged an intentional and co-ordinated campaign of deceit".

The BBC's Nick Bryant: "Effect on tobacco companies could be devastating"

The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court, in Washington DC, names eight tobacco companies, which will be sued to recover billions of dollars spent on smoking-related health care.

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Ms Reno said: "As our complaint also asserts the cigarette-makers have also realised, since 1953, that the truth represents a mortal threat to their business.

"At every turn, they denied that smoking causes disease and denied that it is addictive."

The suit names Philip Morris Inc; Philip Morris Companies; RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co; American Tobacco Co; Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co Inc; Liggett and Myers Inc; The Council for Tobacco Research USA Inc and the Tobacco Institute Inc.

The American Lung Association quickly gave its support to the action.

A spokesman said: "For too long, the costs [of health care] have been unfairly borne by taxpayers. Tobacco companies must be held accountable for the death, disease and economic burdens caused by their products."

But tobacco companies say they are ready to fight. They say the case is politically motivated and is not valid in law.

Last November they agreed to pay more than $200bn to 46 state authorities which had also sought compensation through the courts.

The sums involved in this case could be much greater.

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