Dutch court refuses to order criminal tobacco investigation

A Dutch appeals court on Thursday refused to order public prosecutors to open a criminal investigation of tobacco companies, in a major setback for anti-smoking activists.

In a written ruling that upheld an earlier decision by prosecutors not to open an investigation, The Hague Appeals Court said that cigarettes aren't illegal because they adhere to European Union regulations, "so there is no criminal behavior" by tobacco companies.

"The fact that cigarettes can have an addictive character and can create health risks changes nothing," the court said.

Dutch lawyer Benedicte Ficq in 2016 sought a criminal prosecution on behalf of ex-smokers and a youth smoking prevention organization. Hospitals, doctors and other groups later joined the call.

Ficq called for the prosecution of Philip Morris, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Tobacco Benelux.

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Jan Hein Straeter, director of the Dutch cigarette makers association, the VSK, welcomed the ruling.

"The appeal court's decision is no surprise for the VSK, given that the public prosecutor's office already rejected the complaint in February in a strongly worded decision and concluded that tobacco companies adhere to the law," Straeter said.

Ficq's complaint alleged that the tobacco companies were liable because of "the large-scale, decades-long and ongoing production and sale of addictive tobacco products in the Netherlands." It also alleged that tobacco companies deliberately misled laboratory tests to gauge levels of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide.

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The story corrects an earlier version to show that the appeal court ruling upholds prosecutors' earlier decision not to launch an investigation, not a lower court decision.

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