Where there's smoke, there's a lawsuit

Brian Jones
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When I was in Grade 6, our teacher gave us a demonstration intended to scare us.

On a countertop at the back of the class, she set up a contraption made of clear plastic. It had a short, transparent hose attached to it, into one end of which she put the butt end of a cigarette.

She turned the machine on, and a gentle vacuum of air — simulating inhalation — sucked on the lit cigarette. The contraption quickly filled with swirling smoke.

“That’s what goes into your lungs when you smoke a cigarette,” she told us as we watched in horror.

That was in 1969.

The warnings to youngsters back then were about “tar” and “nicotine.” We didn’t know the details of how, but we knew they could kill us. A few years later, in high school, even kids who smoked referred to cigarettes as “cancer sticks.”

It seems utterly illogical that provincial politicians from coast to coast are planning to sue the big tobacco companies for lying about their products’ effects on people’s health.

This week, the provincial government announced the Tobacco Health Care Costs Recovery Act has become law (a decade after its initial approval).

Justice Minister Felix Collins’ stated in a news release, “By proclaiming this piece of legislation we want to expose tobacco companies for misrepresenting the harm associated with their products.”

Lawyers must be capable of reading this differently than laymen. To an average person, the evidence of tobacco companies’ “misrepresentation” seems scant. It has been common knowledge for at least four decades that smoking cigarettes can cause lung cancer and heart disease.

Anyone who wasn’t aware of the possible consequences of smoking can primarily blame their own wilful ignorance. (This raises a related, contradictory point: tobacco companies stand accused of misrepresentation, but they haven’t been allowed to advertise in Canada for years.)

Harmful habits

It is often pointed out tobacco isn’t the only substance that forces the provincial government to shell out millions of dollars for health care.

The so-called obesity epidemic has been raging for years. Who’s to blame? The fast-food industry is most often cited. There’s a broad range of potential defendants: restaurants, the soft drink industry, manufacturers of processed and prepackaged food laden with salt and sugar.

Equally guilty, if the Justice Department has good lawyers, are the makers of video games — insidious, addictive products that keep kids inside and immobile.

Then there’s alcohol or, if you prefer, bottled mayhem, a product legendary for its ability to bring misery, destruction and death. It seems hypocritical — not to mention an immense lost opportunity — for the provincial government to sue big tobacco companies but ignore liquor producers.

Easy target

This is politics at its worst.

Our province — in addition to every other province except P.E.I. — will sue tobacco companies because public opinion largely holds smoking to be a dirty and disgusting habit. Other dangerous pursuits — such as drinking, or driving fast cars — do not garner the same degree of condemnation, or lawsuits.

Rather than rely on this easy public support for taking aim at an obvious target, the government should explain a few things.

First among them: what if you lose?

What if a judge says, well, tobacco is a legal product, and people knew the consequences of using it. What if a judge says the government, by benefiting from taxes collected, was essentially in cahoots with the tobacco companies in “misrepresenting” the potential harm of smoking.

If the government loses — always a possibility in court — how many millions of dollars will taxpayers have to pay for the big tobacco companies’ legal fees?


Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached by email at bjones@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Justice Department, The Telegram

Geographic location: Canada, P.E.I.

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Recent comments

  • W. bagg
    February 11, 2011 - 07:58

    If govt was serious about it, they outlaw they however that would mean less tax collected and alot of people disgruntled which means less votes.

    • Matt Todd
      February 14, 2011 - 00:43

      Governments do not expect to “win” these lawsuits since there is no way the tobacco companies would be able to pay the massive amounts being demanded by provincial governments across the country without going into bankruptcy. The net profits generated by all three of Canada's big tobacco companies are roughly $1 billion annually. Governments, on the other hand, rake in over 7.5 billion in various tobacco taxes on the same sales totals. The provincial governments can't afford to win. The objective of these lawsuits is to force a settlement similar to the Master Settlement Agreement in the US. That agreement allowed the the tobacco companies to pay an estimated $250 billion annually for 25 years. The catch was that the tobacco companies were permitted to increase the price of tobacco products and pass the costs on to consumers. The MSA actually represents a hidden tax, collected by the tobacco companies and passed on to the 46 states who signed onto the agreement. This little smoke and mirrors charade permitted the government to claim they were penalizing the tobacco industry while imposing a massive (hidden) tax increase. The settlement cost the tobacco companies nothing. The consumer (in this case smokers) got the shaft as usual.