Now that the Quebec government’s lawsuit against tobacco companies has made it to court, Newfoundlanders (and Labradorians) will find out what their own government can expect when their lawsuit gets to a courtroom.
It has been an odyssey more than a decade long. When the province announced it would seek legal redress for health-care costs incurred due to residents’ use of tobacco, Roger Grimes was still premier and in charge of giving away Newfoundland’s (and Labrador’s) natural resources.
In the same week the Quebec government began arguing its case that Canadian tobacco companies should hand over $27 billion to reimburse the government’s spending on health care for people sickened by smoking, six other provinces — B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba, P.E.I., New Brunswick and Nova Scotia — announced they were joining forces by combining their lawsuits against big tobacco.
Notably absent was any mention of Newfoundland.
You might expect a government that boasts about its transparency to voluntarily explain to its citizens why it isn’t involved in this new co-operative effort.
Here’s a viable explanation: “We’ve already hired a law firm from Missouri.”
They’re such patriots. At least they’re not giving away Newfoundland money to mainland Canadians.
Government lawsuits against big tobacco are almost beyond reproach. Anyone who questions a government’s wisdom, or its case, risks sounding as if they side with the tobacco companies, which have earned billions peddling their portable sticks of death.
You could argue, as many people have, that governments are complicit in the ill health arising from tobacco use, because they collect taxes from their purchase.
The Newfoundland government, for instance, takes in about $135 million a year from tobacco taxes.
So, selling tobacco is evil and the pedlars of death must pay, but thanks for the money.
Fortunately, hypocrisy is not deadly, at least on this occasion.
You could also argue — as lawyers for the tobacco companies have already done in the Quebec case — the health risks posed by smoking have been widely known since the mid-1960s, and people who choose to smoke must take personal responsibility for their own decisions and actions.
You could also point out — as the tobacco companies’ lawyers surely will as the Quebec case unfolds — that accusations of manipulation via marketing techniques by the tobacco pushers are invalid and nonsensical. No matter how many millions of dollars are spent on advertising, and no matter how glitzy or persuasive those ads are, they don’t negate a person’s free will, i.e., the ability to decide whether to buy or not to buy.
Looking for largesse
The Newfoundland government has been unnecessarily secretive about its lawsuit against the tobacco companies. You could say it has a bad habit, and is addicted to secrecy.
The government has been silent on the issue, even since filing its statement of claim in February 2011.
There seems to be an assumption among the various governments, including Newfoundland’s, that mere patience will eventually pay off in a big payout.
But the government, and/or its lawyers, should clarify a few things for the citizenry.
First, and at the top of the list, is the oft-cited case in the U.S., in which the big tobacco companies agreed in the 1990s to pay more than $200 billion to 46 states over the course of 25 years.
Contrary to some reports, the U.S. states did not “win” in court. The agreement was an out-of-court settlement.
In Canada, big tobacco is taking a different approach, and is fighting the lawsuits. Obviously, the companies think they can win. Why is that?
Second, if a judge rules in favour of the tobacco companies — as is possible — how much will the government have to pay?
Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.