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Ludicrous lawsuits lack legitimacy

by Archives October 12, 2005

According to a recent B.C. Supreme Court ruling, the B.C. government can claim tobacco-related health care costs from tobacco companies for illnesses as far back as 50 years ago. In 1998, when the U.S. tobacco companies settled with 46 US state governments for over $206 billion, executives testified before Congress that smoking may cause cancer and that nicotine is addictive. But many of these health hazards were already public knowledge in the 1960s.

In 1964, the Surgeon General’s “Smoking and Health” report was published out in the U.S. and the truth about cigarettes was revealed . Health warnings started showing up on U.S. cigarette packs in 1966. In Canada, warning labels became manditory in 1989. If provincial governments are going to start blaming the tobacco companies for health care costs, they should consider these dates.

Tobacco companies’ research showed that cigarettes were harmful in the 1950s. They were not forthcoming with this information and the public was deceived, so they should be held accountable for that. But they should not pay for those who started smoking after information was available on the health risks associated with smoking.

B.C. officials claim the government spends over $500 million a year on tobacco-related diseases. Their claim could reach $10 billion, and if other provinces decide to follow suit and launch their own cases, the tobacco industry could pay a lot more.

In the United States case, smokers are paying for the lawsuit. When the suit was filed in 1998, the cost of cigarettes was significantly lower than it is now. The settlement is taking place over a 25-year period, and the amount lost is being paid for by slight increases in the cost of tobacco products.

In Canada, that won’t be possible since the cost of a pack of cigarettes has been steadily increasing and is already at $9. The government continues to raise taxes, claiming that it will provide people with another incentive to quit. That, coupled with increased funding to anti-smoking ads and disgusting images on cigarette packs should be enough to inform smokers that their habit is not a healthy one. What excuse do they have to continue pointing a finger at tobacco companies?

The Supreme Court ruling may open the floodgates to other claims against the tobacco giants. Other provinces like Newfoundland, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Quebec are considering filing their own claims, but it is an expensive process and there’s no guarantee that they’ll win.

The day after the B.C. ruling, two separate class-action suits were filed in Quebec. They are the first against Canada’s three major tobacco companies: Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., Rothmans/Benson & Hedges Inc., and JTI MacDonald Corp.

The plaintiff in the first case, Cecilia Letourneau, claims that she was deceived about the true nature of tobacco products, a product designed to kill people when used properly. She said the tobacco industry mislead people about cigarettes’ addictive nature. She first sought permission from the Superior Court for her case in 1998, the year tobacco companies had no choice but to come clean about the true nature of their cancer sticks. Her suit is filed on behalf of all Quebecers over age 15 who smoked every day in that year.

She is asking for $10,000 for each smoker, a total of $17.8 billion.

The second case is on behalf of the 49,000 people in Quebec that have developed cancer since 1998. The suit would total $5.15 billion in damages. The plaintiff, Jean-Yves Blais, smoked since he was 10 years old and claims that even after a 1997 operation for lung cancer he couldn’t quit.

When Blais started smoking, it was not common knowledge that smoking caused such serious medical problems. But Letourneau is seeking compensation for all Quebec smokers in 1998, long after the effects of smoking were well known. Even if the tobacco companies didn’t admit that tobacco was addictive and harmful until 1998, there were plenty of earlier resources that showed otherwise.

Tobacco companies should own up to the damage they caused to peoples’ lives when they withheld the truth about what smoking does to the body. Money from tobacco products should go to help those who unknowingly fell prey to the tobacco giants. But for smokers that started after the health risks were made public, it should be the individuals’ responsibilities to quit smoking or suffer the consequences.

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