February 8, 2000
DOCTORS' GROUP CALLS ON B.C. GOVERNMENT TO RELEASE TOBACCO INDUSTRY DOCUMENTS
(Vancouver) - Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada is challenging the decision by B.C.'s Ministry of Health to keep secret thousands of pages of tobacco industry documentation.
"The government has reneged on its commitment to make its unique collection of tobacco industry documents available to the health community for research purposes," charged Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada.
"In June of last year, Ministry officials promised the research community these important documents would be made public. Seven months later, even after being prompted by a request under the Freedom of Information Act, they are blocking access to this material." On February 1, the Ministry refused to release these public documents, claiming they were subject to solicitor-client privilege.
The documents in question were obtained from the 'Guildford depository' of documents belonging to the British American Tobacco Company (BAT) near London, England. BAT agreed to make the depository open to researchers as part of its settlement with the State of Minnesota in 1998.
During 1999, researchers from Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada (PSC), Health Canada, and the B.C. Ministry of Health visited the depository to review and collect documents. Over 15,000 pages of documentation have been made public by Health Canada and PSC. The government of British Columbia is the only public agency to refuse access to its material.
"This is a very ill-considered move by the Minister of Health," said Callard. "These are public documents. They were obtained using public funds. They are important to public health."
Callard drew attention to the removal from the government’s anti-tobacco strategy of the goal of "exposing the truth" about tobacco industry products and behaviour. This had been the first goal outlined by former Health Minister Joy MacPhail, but was removed from the department’s information materials after the launch of the lawsuit in November 1998.
"The B.C. government has moved so far away from its strategy of ‘exposing’ the truth about tobacco that they are now engaged in an active cover-up of tobacco industry secrets. The material they are refusing to share with researchers is needed to assist federal regulators in developing effective ways of building less-addictive and less-harmful cigarettes," said Callard. "This is not only harmful to public health, it goes against the spirit of open government and the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act."
Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada will appeal to the Information and Privacy Commissioner, and ask for the solicitor-client exemption to be over-turned.
"Solicitor-client privilege is intended to preserve the confidentiality of communications between a lawyer and his or her client, so the client and lawyer can discuss their case in complete privacy. It is difficult to understand how the provincial government could validly invoke that principle here," said Mr. Cameron Ward. Mr. Ward is a Vancouver-based solicitor who is representing Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada in this matter.
Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada is a national registered charity based in Ottawa with a membership of physicians from across Canada. PSC conducts research on tobacco-caused disease and promotes effective ways of reducing it.
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