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FEDERAL and state governments could take big tobacco to court, seeking compensation for smoking’s health-care costs.

Two international tobacco giants have launched billion-dollar legal action, seeking the suspension of plain packaging laws that will see all cigarettes dressed down in drab green packaging.

Two more companies will begin action in coming days.

But the states may mount their own court challenge within months.

And today in Melbourne, Commonwealth lawyers and public-health and law experts are to meet veteran anti-tobaccocampaigner Matthew Myers, who helped US states claim about $206 billion in health-care compensation from tobaccofirms.

He will discuss his role in the US Master Settlement Agreement, which awarded the compensation, and forced cigarette companies to change their marketing and pay for a $1.5 billion anti-smoking campaign.

The settlement also forced the disclosure of previously secret documents held by the companies.

Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon said the Government was readying itself for a fight and wanted to arm itself with the lessons learned overseas.

“I am looking forward to having him here to pick his brains on the strategies that they used in the US to hold tobaccocompanies accountable for the costs that governments pick up from tobacco-related disease,” Ms Roxon told the Herald Sun yesterday.

The US experience would help Australian jurisdictions consider what options they might pursue, she said.

Smoking kills more than 15,000 Australians a year.

The unhealthy habit costs the nation at least $31.5 billion in health care.

Mr Myers will also advise on big tobacco’s likely game plan to tear down plain packaging laws, in a sign Australia’s world-first laws are grabbing global attention.

“This is a fight that many other countries around the world have been in for different tobacco-control measures,” Ms Roxon said.

“So it’s important to talk to the experts from around the world about the tactics that we can expect from big tobacco and the strategies that they might have successfully used.”

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