Press Release

September 29, 2009

Suing big tobacco should be about health, not just health care costs

Physicians group calls for clear health goals to be included in litigation strategies.

Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada (PSC) cautiously welcomed Ontario’s announcement of a $50 billion lawsuit today against tobacco companies for past and ongoing health care costs, but cautioned that the litigation needed to result in measures that improved the health of Ontarians, and not just the wealth of the Ontario government.

“Tobacco companies have much to answer for, and the courts are the appropriate place to hold them to account,” explained Dr. Atul Kapur, an emergency physician in Ottawa and president of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada. “If litigation is used by government only to recover the costs of treating diseases but not used to establish ways of reducing tobacco-caused disease, justice will not be done.”

Ontario is the third province to formally launch lawsuits in Canadian courts against tobacco companies operating in Canada, but similar suits are expected from all provinces in the coming months. “A pan-Canadian litigation effort is clearly underway,” explained Dr. Kapur. “Enabling legislation has been passed in virtually every province, and rumours are widely circulating of an agreement among all provinces to ‘join suit’.”

This will be the second pan-Canadian litigation effort against tobacco companies by provincial attorney generals.

The first one resulted in an agreement announced on July 31st 2008 between all provinces, the federal government and two of the tobacco companies that had been investigated for their role in contraband tobacco sales in the 1990. “The 2008 settlement with tobacco companies was developed, announced and implemented without any health analysis, health goal or positive health impact,” said Dr. Kapur. “Canadians should not accept a repetition of the 2008 tobacco litigation experience. The 2008 settlement was negotiated in secret, imposed confidentiality agreements that blocked the ability of health ministries to better control tobacco supply, and created financial incentives to government for continued profitability of tobacco companies.”

In May 2009, Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada wrote each Canadian premier seeking assurance of a transparent management of tobacco litigation, and for public engagement in the development of health goals for tobacco litigation. To date, not one of the provinces which has signaled its intention to sue has provided any assurance to this effect.