Saudi Arabia's Health Ministry has filed a $34 billion lawsuit against importers of cigarettes from international tobacco companies, including U.S. firms, for costs of medical treatment of smoking-related illnesses, the first such action in the Arab world, the health minister said Tuesday.
The lawsuit -- seeking one of the world's biggest damage claims -- brings the tactic of tackling smoking through the courts for the first time to the Mideast, where smoking is chronic and governments have only just begun trying to reduce the habit.
Health Minister Hamad al-Manie said the suit is part of a stepped-up campaign anti-smoking campaign in the kingdom, which is a top tobacco importer and where cigarettes remain extremely cheap -- $1.50 a pack.
"It's a duty that we in the ministry have to perform," al-Manie said in an interview at his office.
Legal proceedings against the 13 Saudi cigarette importers began last year, according to Ibraheem al-Musaiteer, head of the ministry's legal department. So far the defendants have been laying low: Only one agent attended one of the four court hearings held so far.
The suit targets the local agents rather than the international tobacco companies themselves because "it's the agents that bring the cigarettes into the country," al-Manie said.
"We have patients who are sick because of the agents who import cigarettes," he said. "We have documented proof that these diseases were caused by smoking, and I am asking for compensation for these patients."
Al-Manie put the health and economic costs of tobacco-related illnesses in the kingdom at more than $1.3 billion a year.
What if the agents cannot afford such a big lawsuit?
"Let them resolve it with the companies," said al-Manie. He said the defendants cover all cigarette imports into the kingdom, which has no local production.
The defendants could not be reached for comment on the case; no one answered the phone at companies owned by three of the importers.
Some companies whose brands are sold in the kingdom did not immediately comment on the case. Philip Morris International Inc., which produces the brand Marlboro, did not immediately return calls.
The use of lawsuits to tackle smoking has become an increasingly popular tactic in the United States, Europe and Asia since the 1990s -- though many tobacco companies have adjusted to absorb the blow from suits. In 2002, a Los Angeles jury ordered Phillip Morris to pay $28 billion in damages to a woman with lung cancer, but the ruling was later reduced to $25 million.
Most suits in the U.S. are raised by smokers, though the government has also gotten involved. A landmark 1998 settlement with 46 state attorneys general forces tobacco companies to compensate health care costs for smoking-related diseases. The federal government in 2006 won an attempt to hold companies liable under civil racketeering laws for conspiring to hide the dangers of smoking, though that case is under appeal.
The Middle East has only recently made its first attempts to reduce widespread smoking. Egypt this year introduced photos on cigarette packets showing the dangers of cigarettes and is trying to ban it in some public space.
In Saudi Arabia, officials estimate that a quarter of the kingdom's 27.6 million people smoke. A 2007 Health Ministry survey of 3,829 intermediate school students across the country found that 1 in 5 students use cigarettes or waterpipes and 3 out of 10 live in homes where others smoke in their presence.
Al-Musaiteer said between 1982 and 2007 almost 31 billion packets of cigarettes were imported into the country.
Despite the large numbers, smoking remains a stigma in the kingdom. Many smoke in secret because the habit is seen as disrespectful to parents and older relatives and because in this deeply conservative country their actions contradict strict antismoking fatwas, religious edicts, by top Saudi clerics.
"Smoking is prohibited because it's harmful," said the previous mufti, Sheik Abdul-Aziz bin Baz, in one of his rulings, which remain popular a decade after his death. "Those who smoke or trade in (cigarettes) should seek repentance."
Before raising the lawsuit, the ministry tried to reach a settlement with the importers, said al-Musaiteer. He said ministry officials were approached by a U.S. tobacco company directly -- not by its Saudi representative -- but the settlement offered was not enough. He did not provide further details.
Asked whether the ministry will seek to ban cigarettes, al-Manie said it does not have the power to do, but it can recommend it. But he said that health ministers in the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council have suggested to GCC finance ministers to raise cigarette prices by 100 percent.
The Saudi action is part of an antismoking campaign the ministry began more than six years ago. It includes the distribution of flyers highlighting the harmful effects of smoking and a ban of cigarette commercials on the official Saudi TV channels. A similar message is printed on cigarette packets and preparations are under way to add pictures depicting the effects of smoking-related diseases. Plus, the ministry is soon launching a new TV station called Sahha (Health) TV.
"It will feature interviews with cancer patients and we will show things that will scare people into quitting smoking," said al-Manie.
Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.