thursday, 22 november of 2012

Anti-smoking activists applaud Quebec court decision absolving federal government in tobacco case

Tobacco case

Anti-smoking activists applaud Quebec court decision absolving federal government in tobacco case

Anti-smoking activists are cheering a decision by the Quebec Court of Appeal to release the federal government from all responsibility in two class-action suits against three tobacco companies.

"For us this is very good news because it will reduce the length of the court process," said Mario Bujold, executive director of the Quebec Council on Tobacco and Health.

"We have always said the government is not responsible for the actions of the tobacco companies, who had a responsibility to inform the public about the dangers of their product. Instead, they created doubts in the mind of the consumer with ads promoting smoking as a good thing, as a lifestyle."

Bujold estimated the release of the federal government from the case will save at least a year of courtroom procedures.

The two class action suits launched in 1998 against three tobacco companies — Imperial Tobacco, JTI-Macdonald and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges — have taken 14 years to finally get to court. The suits were authorized in 2005, but in 2008 the companies named the attorney-general of Canada as a defendant in warranty, claiming the government should be forced to pay any damages awarded in the suits.

Some 90,000 smokers suffering from lung, throat, or larynx cancer or emphysema, and another 1.5 million people who are addicted to the nicotine contained in cigarettes, are seeking $27 million in damages from the tobacco companies.

In their judgment rendered Wednesday, Quebec Court of Appeal justices Jacques Léger, Jacques Fournier and Clément Gascon wrote that "the federal government's policies on health and tobacco have been founded on economic and social considerations for more than 50 years, which shelters (the government) from any civil responsibility suit."

Rob Cunningham, a lawyer and senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society, called the ruling a "very important defeat" for the tobacco companies.

Cunningham said the defendants in the case did not want taxpayers to be on the hook for damages, since the federal government has taken important steps to curb smoking, including taxing cigarettes heavily, warnings on packages and awareness campaigns. Smoking rates in Quebec have dropped from about 50 per cent in the 1960s to 22 per cent today, largely because of government regulations and policies.

Big tobacco lost a similar case recently in British Columbia, when the Supreme Court rendered a unanimous decision that the federal government could not be held liable as a third party defendant. There again, the tobacco companies had argued the government should be responsible for paying any damages awarded by the courts.

"The tobacco industry's strategy in litigation over the decades has been to delay and to try to blame somebody else. If an individual smoker sues, it's the smoker's fault. If a province sues (for costs to the health system), it's the province's fault. In this case, they said ‘If we lose, the feds have to reimburse us for all or some of the damages.' "

The tobacco companies, meanwhile, were certainly not conceding defeat.

"Rothman's defences to the allegations are no less powerful or effective as a result of the federal government being released from the case," said Chris Koddermann, the director of corporate affairs for Rothmans, Benson & Hedges.

"One of our principle defences is that we can't be held liable for conduct that has, over many decades, been guided by the directives, policies and wishes of the federal government," he said, adding the health risks of smoking have been commonly known since the 1950s.

He said the defendants will still be calling federal government witnesses, from Health Canada and Agriculture Canada, for example.

Tobacco company lawyers are reviewing the ruling and have not yet decided whether to appeal, he said.

(Published by The Gazette - November 15, 2012)

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