By Camillus Eboh
ABUJA, Oct 29 (Reuters) - A Nigerian court adjourned on Wednesday a 5.3 trillion naira ($45 billion) lawsuit brought by the government against three tobacco firms until January so the prosecution can serve court papers on one of the defendants.
Nigeria is seeking a sum, roughly twice the size of its annual budget, in damages for public health costs from British American Tobacco BAT.L, Philip Morris International and Nigerian firm International Tobacco Ltd.
The Nigerian government has accused the firms of targeting young smokers by promoting the sale of individual cigarettes and has asked the court to ban cigarette sales to under-18s and curb advertising aimed at young people.
It is seeking 4.8 trillion naira as preventive damages for future expenses for cigarette-related diseases, 136 billion naira as compensation to sick youths, 250 billion naira in restitution and 130 billion naira as punitive damages.
Government lawyer Dapo Akinoshun told a Federal High Court in Abuja that Swiss-based Philip Morris had rejected court papers sent on three occasions by courier. Efforts to publish the summons in a Swiss newspaper had also failed, he said.
Philip Morris could not immediately be reached for comment.
Akinoshun appealed to be able to serve the papers through the Swiss embassy in Nigeria as a last resort.
"The application is granted. The defendant should be served through the diplomatic channel," Judge Adamu Bello ruled, adjourning the case to Jan. 19.
It is the second time that the court has had to adjourn the case so that lawyers could serve Philip Morris.
The case is inspired by U.S. lawsuits in the 1990s that led to multibillion dollar settlements by the tobacco industry.
But health campaigners say the Nigerian government does not spend anywhere near the huge amounts it says in the lawsuit on delivering healthcare.
Decades of corruption and mismanagement have left Nigeria’s health service in such a bad state that wealthy Nigerians — including President Umaru Yar’Adua — prefer to seek medical attention abroad. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com) (Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Elizabeth Piper) ($1 = 117.81 naira) ($1=132.70 Naira)