A German smoker is suing a tobacco company, claiming that his cigarette addiction caused severe health problems. Court hearings began on Friday. The judge will decide on Nov. 14 whether to admit the unprecedented case.
About a quarter of Germans light up regularly.
Wolfgang Heine lit his first cigarette almost 40 years ago. The 56-year-old from a small town near Dortmund in western Germany has been smoking ever since -- two packs a day until 1983, a little less than that since then.
Ten years ago, he had a heart attack, followed by another one in 1999. He's already undergone two bypass surgeries and needs a third, but his doctors don't think that his heart could handle any more.
Wolfgang Heine says he is dying. "I'm short of breath, quickly get exhausted and have to rest a lot," he told dpa. He blames the Reemtsma tobacco company, whose cigarettes he's been smoking all along.
On Friday, Heine took his case to a German courtroom. He's breaking new ground in the country, because for the first time, a tobacco company will have to defend itself against charges of endangering peoples' health through smoking.
After oral arguments from both sides, a District Court judge in the western German town of Arnsberg made no decision whether to let the case proceed to trial. He is expected to do so on Nov. 14.
Lawyers for Heine and Reemtsma said they were confident to prevail in the matter. Heine's lawyer said he expected the judge to follow his request to begin hearing evidence in the dispute. A Reemtsma spokesperson countered that the company believed the plaintiff's arguments to be too weak.
Trials common in U.S.
While the future of Heine's lawsuit remains uncertain, such trials are common in the United States. There, juries have awarded billions of dollars in punitive damages to sick smokers.
But in Germany, the Federal Court of Justice has thrown out similar lawsuits in the past, ruling that smokers should know about the risks involved with their habit. The last time a smoker pressed for damages against a tobacco company was in May 2000, but it was quickly shot down by the court as unfounded.
Germany's smoker levels are among the highest in the world. About 18 to 20 million Germans, roughly a quarter of the population, smoke a pack of cigarettes a day. The country also tops the list of nations with the highest number of young smokers, according to the German Center for Questions Regarding Addiction: More than ten percent of 13 to 15-year-olds smoke, as do more than 15 percent of Germans under 20.
Large warning lables like "Smoking gives you wrinkles" and "Giving up smoking will reduce your risk of heart and lung disease" are designed to get people to kick the habit.
Heine, a retired accountant, claims that warnings on cigarette packs, which have recently been enlarged, didn't exist when he started smoking. He's also arguing that tobacco companies add addictive substances to their cigarettes. The company, which kept a low profile prior to Friday's hearing, denies this.
The German Reemtsma is now owned by the British Imperial Tobacco Group. It is the world's fourth largest cigarette company and produces the brands Davidoff, West, R1 and Peter Stuyvesant. So far the company has managed to keep itself out of the expensive litigation processes its competitors face.
Setting off an avalanche of law suits?
Should Heine be successful in court, other smokers are expected to follow suit.
"Then it's a whole different ballgame, involving billions of euros," Heine's lawyer told dpa. He added that to his knowledge, tobacco companies have insured themselves against smokers' claims in the billions.
Unlike American smokers who press for millions, Heine is only asking for a total of €213,000 ($244,000). His lawyer also wants the court to force Reemtsma to reveal information about the content of its cigarettes.
Heine himself is still smoking a few cigarettes a day.