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Central Asia: Kyrgyzstan And Tajikistan Challenge U.S. Tobacco Companies

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan claim American tobacco companies are to blame for tobacco-related illnesses among their populations and they've hired an American law firm to sue the biggest tobacco producers. RFE/RL correspondent K.P. Foley spoke to lawyers representing both sides of the issue and filed this report.

Washington, 9 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have filed lawsuits against the biggest American tobacco companies, claiming the industry is responsible for the public health burden the two countries are bearing because of smoking-related illnesses.

Success could mean tens of millions of dollars in damage awards for the two Central Asian nations. However, an attorney for one of the tobacco companies says the complaints are worthless. Michael York, who represents the Philip Morris tobacco company, told RFE/RL the firm is seeking to have the cases rejected before they come to trial.

"Our motion is to have them thrown out of court. Mainly because they're the wrong case alleging the wrong facts based on the wrong law and, most importantly, brought in the wrong place."

The lawsuits, one on behalf of Kyrgyzstan and one on behalf of Tajikistan, were filed in the state of Florida in the district court for Miami-Dade County on 24 January.

Joe Raia, whose Miami law firm is arguing each nation's case, told RFE/RL that Kyrgyz and Tajik authorities chose Florida as the venue to file their case because there is a history in Florida of favorable decisions in anti-tobacco lawsuits.

"These foreign suits have been filed here because there's a history of other tobacco litigation in Miami-Dade County, Florida. In particular, the state of Florida filed a pioneering lawsuit here which resulted in a huge settlement between the state of Florida and the tobacco industry."

He also noted that a jury found for a group of airline flight attendants who sued tobacco companies because of their exposure to cigarette smoke on airplane flights. And, just last month, a jury in Florida awarded $145 billion to a group of people who sued to recover damages from tobacco-related diseases.

Raia said a separate suit was filed on behalf of each government seeking to recover the costs borne by the health ministries and other government departments who had to care for sick people or who lost productive employees to illness.

"It's on behalf of the government to the extent it has had to pay direct costs of tobacco-related injuries."

In a separate interview, the attorney for Philip Morris said anti-tobacco suits filed by former communist countries that had their own cigarette monopolies are ludicrous.

"The cases really don't make sense, in particular in respect to the former Soviet Union republics. These are states that actually owned their own monopoly cigarette companies up until just a few years ago."

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are among a growing number of foreign countries that have filed actions against U.S. tobacco companies for smoking-related illnesses. Suits have been filed by Guatemala, Venezuela, Ecuador, two federal states in Brazil, Russia and Ukraine.

The foreign countries may have been encouraged by the landmark "National Tobacco Settlement," that was reached in 1997 between the biggest tobacco companies and 46 of the 50 U.S. states.

The settlement calls for the four largest tobacco concerns to pay out $206 billion to the states for a period of 25 years. There are two phases to the settlement funds. The first phase pays out money to the states to help them cover the cost of treating patients suffering from smoking-related ailments such as heart disease and cancer.

The second phase is given to the states, mostly in the south, where tobacco is grown. Those funds are to help ease the financial burden tobacco farmers are expected to feel as demand for tobacco decreases.

While the U.S. states may have won their legal battles with tobacco, the American newspaper "The Washington Post" noted in a recent special report on tobacco litigation that U.S. courts have been in general reluctant to sustain foreign lawsuits against U.S. firms.

Raia said his law firm is confident that the actions on behalf of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will proceed. He said the cases are now in a preliminary stage and no hearings have yet been scheduled.

He also said the complaints do not ask for any specific amount of money for damages. He says there are existing models for tobacco litigation awards. Raia said the complaints ask for damages that would be consistent with previous awards in other Florida cases.

The lawsuits charge that RJ Reynolds, Philip Morris, and other tobacco companies knew they were selling a dangerous, addictive substance, yet they denied their products were causing harm.

"The industry has essentially used the addiction in order to sell their product at the expense of human health."

York said the allegations that tobacco companies misled countries which for years made their own cigarettes, "strains any kind of straight-faced test you might want to construct."