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  Dutchman Challenging Big Tobacco

By Anthony Deutsch
Associated Press Writer
Friday, Sept. 24, 1999; 4:50 p.m. EDT

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands –– In the first Dutch challenge to Big Tobacco, a man suffering from chronic emphysema after smoking for 41 years is suing R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and two other tobacco companies, claiming additives in cigarettes ruined his health.

Wim ter Schegget, 55, quit smoking this week after suffering from smoke-related illness for years. He started at the age of 14 and his habit later led to chronic emphysema, for which he will undergo surgery on Monday.

Ter Schegget says that by the time he realized how dangerous smoking was, he was puffing a pack a day and couldn't stop.

In a letter this week to four tobacco manufacturers – the other two are London-based British American Tobacco and Douwe Egberts, the leading Dutch cigarette maker – Ter Schegget's attorney, Martin de Witte, informed the companies of his intent to sue for damages. He said the Dutch government also was being included in the suit for "failing to sufficiently inform the public of the damaging effects."

The document alleges that the manufacturers knowingly withheld information about addiction-enhancing substances and harmful chemicals used to treat tobacco leaves. De Witte said cases in the United States and Britain have proved the companies knew of the health implications, opening the way for prosecution in the Netherlands.

Leading the battle against cigarette makers in the United States, the Justice Department on Wednesday sued the tobacco industry in an attempt to recover billions of government dollars spent on smoking-related health care, accusing the companies of operating a "coordinated campaign of fraud and deceit."

Although the Dutch case could result in financial compensation, De Witte said that is not the suit's aim. He said his client, who argues he was misled by marketing campaigns, is pushing for sweeping changes in the Dutch tobacco industry.

"The manufacturer is going to have to prove that the product isn't faulty and that it has been presented to the public in the proper fashion," De Witte said. As an example, he pointed to Camel cigarettes, which he said are promoted as "fun, energizing and surprising."

Camel is one of the leading brand cigarettes in the suit, which also targets the makers of Barclay, Pall Mall, Lucky Strike and other well-known brands.

Smokers' advocates and the companies under attack have rejected the case's chance of success before it even reaches the courts.

"The situation in the Netherlands is luckily different from in the United States," said spokesman Ton Wutz of the Amsterdam-based group Smokers Rights. "As a smoker, I think it's ridiculous simply because people are responsibly for their own choices."

Wutz is one of more than 5 million Dutch smokers which make up a third of the population in this country of just under 16 million. In the Netherlands, smoking is widely accepted at work, in restaurants and most public buildings.

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press

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