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Monday, 2 April, 2001, 18:16 GMT 19:16 UK
Islanders free to sue tobacco giants
Pile of cigarettes
Marshall Islands cleared to sue tobacco companies
A court has cleared the way for the Marshall Islands to launch an multi-billion dollar suit against US tobacco companies over health care costs related to smoking.

The tobacco companies had argued that courts in the Marshall Islands should be disqualified from hearing the case because of alleged political interference from the judiciary.

US Chief Justice Allen Fields said that claims put forward by the tobacco companies were hypocritical and without merit.

The tobacco companies had argued to the Supreme Court that they could not get a fair trial because of the Marshall Islands' tribal system of chiefs or iroij, who they claimed influenced the courts.

Apparently the American attorneys are unfamiliar with the continuing struggle of the courts in the United States to have and to keep their independence.

US Chief Justice Allen Fields
Judge Fields said that domination of commoners by chiefs "no longer exists" citing the recent election of President Kessai Note "who is not an iroij (and) was elected and has prevailed over the iroij. There is no doubt that the citizens can serve as fair and impartial jurors."

"Apparently the American attorneys are unfamiliar with the continuing struggle of the courts in the United States to have and to keep their independence," Judge Fields said.

He detailed attempts by US presidents, congressmen, governors and citizens interest groups to fire judges dating back to 1800.

Originally, the Marshall Islands had filed 11 charges claiming compensation of over $4bn against Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds and the American Tobacco Company but the island's High Court dismissed all but one action, which will now go to trial in the Marshall Islands in September.

Tobacco profits

Tobacco companies have enjoyed healthy profits over the last year and their shares have been among the few that have not suffered record big falls in the recent stock market downturn.

Philip Morris in February reported that its profit rose 8.3% in the fourth quarter last year, bolstered by strong growth in its tobacco business.

Its domestic tobacco profits rose 5% while international tobacco profits rose 4.5%.

Island life

The Marshall Islands has a population of 60,000 people and is made up of hundreds of atolls and islands scattered over hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of the Central Pacific.

Nuclear test in the Pacific
Marshall Islands were the site of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests
The Marshall Islands were granted independence from the US in 1986 and under the agreement - the Compact of Free Association - rent their military sovereignty to the US in exchange for annual payments plus access to a range of US federal programs.

The islands are famous for the nuclear tests that occurred on Bikini Atoll in the 1950s and they are still used to test Star Wars technology.

The Marshallese have received $1bn over the past 13 years and are now completely dependent on US payments, which account for nearly three-quarters of the gross domestic product.

A third of the population lives in ramshackle housing in the capital, Majuro, where essential services like education, health care and waste disposal are minimal.

Other suits

The Marshall Islands are not alone in launching suits against the tobacco companies.

Two Central Asian nations, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have launched multi-million pounds suits against the US tobacco industry for the cost of smoking-related illnesses.

They join Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Venezuela amongst others in trying to sue the tobacco companies in their domestic courts.

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25 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Tobacco giants face new lawsuits
19 Jan 00 | Americas
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