By ANNA JEAN KAISERAssociated Press
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Tobacco giant Philip Morris said Thursday that Brazil's courts have consistently ruled that tobacco companies are not liable for smoking-related health damages after the country's attorney general filed a lawsuit seeking to recover costs to the public health system in treating such illnesses.
The suit filed Tuesday against Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco seeks to recuperate losses over the last five years for the treatment of 26 diseases with scientifically proven links to tobacco usage. It is the first of its kind in Latin America.
In a statement, Philip Morris responded by saying: "It is worth noting that for the past 20 years, courts in Brazil have consistently found that tobacco manufacturers are not liable for smoking-related damages given that the sale of cigarettes is a legal, heavily regulated activity and that the health risks of smoking have been well-known for decades."
It said it had not yet been notified of the lawsuit so could not comment on specific allegations.
A spokesperson from British American Tobacco said the company was aware of the lawsuit but had not yet been served legal proceedings so couldn't comment.
In the suit, the attorney general's office said Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco and their subsidiaries are responsible for 90% of Brazil's cigarette sales and manufacturing. Brazil's Health Ministry estimates that the country loses the equivalent of $3.5 billion per year due to medical expenses and lost productivity from nicotine addiction.
"Since the profit of this business is sent abroad, it's more than fair that these multinationals pay the burden they are leaving with Brazilian society," said David Bressler, a coordinator from a regional prosecutor's office.
The U.S.-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids called the case "historic" and said that the attorney general's office is "courageously standing up to multinational tobacco companies and seeking just compensation the Brazilian people deserve."
About 428 people die per day in Brazil because of nicotine dependency, and 90% of lung cancer cases in the country are related to smoking tobacco, according to the Health Ministry.
Brazil is considered a regional leader in tobacco control.
Smoking is illegal in nearly all enclosed public places, advertisements and promotions for tobacco products are banned, and cigarette packs carry graphic health warnings of cancer-infected lungs and mouths.
A statement from the attorney general's office said the case didn't intend to affect tobacco production in Brazil.
"(The lawsuit) doesn't in any way affect domestic tobacco production and Brazil's position as the world's largest exporter of tobacco leaves, as it has been for 26 years," it said, noting that 70% of the country's tobacco production is exported.
Similar lawsuits in the U.S. and Canada have forced tobacco companies to pay billions for health damages.