"Radioactive" cigarettes cited in Israeli lawsuit
Megan Goldin JERUSALEM  June 2000

An Israeli lawsuit against U.S. cigarette companies is citing an alleged internal Philip Morris memo as evidence that the biggest U.S. cigarette maker made cigarettes containing naturally radioactive tobacco.

Attorney Amos Hausner, son of the prosecutor who sent Nazi Adolf Eichmann to the gallows, is fighting the biggest suit in Israel's history to make one Israeli and six U.S. tobacco companies pay up to $8 billion for allegedly poisoning and possibly irradiating Israelis with cigarettes.

"Whether the amount of radioactivity is harmful or not, we don't know but it is quite possible it is harmful because of the simple reason that nobody is checking," Hausner said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday.

The case was brought on behalf of the Clalit national health fund which represents 60 percent of Israelis.

It will be the first major suit to use what is alleged to be an internal Philip Morris memo found in the Minnesota archive that cigarette companies were forced to establish by U.S. court order, Hausner said.

Marked "Confidential", the purported memo dated April 2, 1980, says that phosphate fertilisers and especially superphosphate fertilisers used in tobacco fields can contain natural uranium.

"Soils to which these products (the fertilisers) are applied show an increase in radioactivity," the document says, adding that the by-products of decaying uranium, lead and polonium, were present in tobacco and smoke. Polonium is radioactive.

The document concludes that while it is unlikely that a person would get lung cancer by inhaling the polonium present in the tobacco, "evidence to date, however, does not allow one to state that this is an impossibility".

The alleged memo, a copy of which Hausner provided to Reuters, notes that suggestions that Philip Morris use a different fertiliser would be "a valid but expensive point".

Hausner said cigarette makers usually defended themselves in court by claiming that smokers knew the risks and chose to smoke anyway. But he pointed out that smokers never knew or in any way agreed to smoke radioactive cigarettes.

"Nobody, but nobody, assumes the risk of inhaling something radioactive," Hausner said.

Philip Morris attorney Chuck Nunley told Reuters the issue of polonium in tobacco has been studied by scientists and even the U.S. surgeon-general who, the lawyer said, concluded in 1971 that it was significant only if found in relatively high concentrations.

"As I understand it, polonium is a naturally occurring element that there is a background level of in the environment. It's present in trace amounts in lots of things that we eat," Nunley said.

Hausner is seeking $2 billion in damages allegedly caused by the tobacco products and by the companies' actions and around $6 billion as damages for smokers who he says will die or become ill in the future.

The case, filed in 1998, is still at a preliminary stage. Once it goes to trial, Hausner said, he will demand that Philip Morris provide details about how widely the fertilizers were used and whether they are still used.

"Since cigarettes are not regulated, nobody knows what's inside them and what's not inside them," Hausner said.

He said that it was possible the radioactive fertiliser was used by other cigarette companies besides Philip Morris.

"The document makes no distinction between different manufacturers. It's according to where the tobacco has been grown and what fertilisers were used," he said.

Hausner has campaigned against smoking for years, first forcing Israel's army to ban cigarette advertising from a magazine given to soldiers and then helping make El Al Israel Airlines implement a non-smoking policy on its flights.

About 10,000 people die every year in Israel from smoking- related illnesses.

"In Israel, if you put together all the deaths from wars, terror activities, road accidents, murders, suicide, illegal drugs – all of these together – you wouldn't even reach one half of the number of deaths from smoking," Hausner said.