Israel's largest health insurer said Tuesday it was suing U.S. tobacco companies for smoking-related illnesses in what it said was the first lawsuit of its kind to be filed outside the United States.

A lawyer representing Kupat Holim Clalit, Amos Hausner, said the insurer was seeking a minimum of $2 billion in damages from five top U.S. tobacco companies.The suit names Philip Morris Cos; R.J. Reynolds, a unit of RJR Nabisco Holdings Corp.; Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., a unit of B.A.T. Industries Plc.; Lorillard Tobacco Co., a unit of Loews Corp; and Liggett & Myers, a subsidiary of Liggett Group Inc., he said.

Dubek Ltd., Israel's sole tobacco producer, was also named.

Dubek's spokesman told Reuters his company had yet to receive the lawsuit.

"When we do we will respond and study it," he said.

Representatives of the overseas companies were not immediately available for comment as most businesses were closed for the eve of Yom Kippur.

"The suit claims that for the past 45 years the defendants developed strategies, including trying to create doubt about the damage caused by smoking at a time when they knew tobacco kills, and trying to design cigarettes to achieve the maximum degree of addiction while not revealing the addictive nature," Hausner said.

In addition to the $2 billion for past damages, the suit seeks an unspecified amount for punitive and future damages.

Kupat Holim Clalit insures about 70 percent of Israel's six million people, Hausner said.

"The health fund is not only interested in monetary gain but also in the educational factor so that fewer people will smoke in the future," he said.

Health officials estimate that 6,000 people die annually in Israel from smoking-related illnesses.

Hausner said Kupat Holim Clalit would show that the tobacco companies intentionally misled Israeli legislators and the Ministry of Health in the 1970s on the dangers of smoking.

"We have internal documents from the tobacco companies which prove they were aware of the damage while at the same time we have documents showing that they came to our legislators and told them it was not proven that smoking caused damage, that there was doubt and more research needed to be done," he said.

The suit filed in Jerusalem District Court on Monday was based on thousands of pages of evidence and claimed the defendants were jointly responsible for the damage, Hausner said.