News Releases

October 25, 2004

Tobacco companies must be held accountable for deliberately deceiving their customers
Doctors support landmark “light cigarette” class action suit

(Ottawa) – Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada hopes that Canadian courts will hold tobacco companies accountable for the harmful marketing of cigarettes as ‘light’ or ‘mild.’

 “Light cigarettes are a public health tragedy,” said PSC president, Dr. Atul Kapur.  “Millions of smokers have been deceived into believing that light cigarettes are safer. Light cigarettes are not safer and it’s time someone forced Big Tobacco to make amends.”

Dr. Kapur spoke on the occasion of the first hearing of the first citizens’ lawsuit against tobacco companies for the marketing of so-called ‘light’ cigarettes.  On Monday, October 25th, the British Columbia Supreme Court begins a review of whether legal action against Imperial Tobacco for the sale of light cigarettes is certifiable as a class action suit.  This lawsuit was filed by the firm Klein Lyons on behalf of Kenneth Knight and other British Columbians in May 2003.

“Tobacco companies have ignored their obligations to their customers, and governments have failed consumers too.  The last resort that citizens have is to go to court to seek to bring this massive fraud to an end.  If this class action is certified, both public justice and public health will be advanced.” concluded Dr. Kapur.

The lawsuit claims that the ‘light’ cigarette descriptor “is intended to convey, and does convey, to consumers an implicit message of health reassurance…[so] that smokers who are worried about their health may switch to lights instead of quitting.” Health Canada’s own research supports this assertion.  The most recent Canadian Tobacco Use Monitoring Survey (CTUMS) showed that last year more than 340,000 Canadians smoked ‘light’ cigarettes because they thought this meant they could reduce the harm to their health without having to quit.

“British Columbia has led the way in the fight against Big Tobacco,” said Dr. Kapur.  “This class action suit is an important complement to the B.C. government’s comprehensive law suit against tobacco companies for their wrongdoing.”  British Columbia filed a suit against the tobacco companies in 1998, and re-filed the suit in 2001 after the enabling legislation was revised. No other province has yet filed a lawsuit for damages other than those related to smuggling.

The B.C. government lawsuit (for which hearings have not yet been held) was broader than the Knight case, but contained claims about the misleading nature of ‘light’ cigarettes that are virtually identical to those contained in the Knight suit.  The B.C. government suit argued that the industry “sold ‘light’ cigarettes as an alternative to give false reassurance to smokers who were concerned about their health – even though these cigarettes deliver about the same amount of tar and nicotine as regular cigarettes.”

A class action suit in Illinois similar to the Knight case resulted in an order that Philip Morris pay US$10.5 billion in damages (the case is currently under appeal).  Class actions on light cigarettes were certified in Massachusetts and Missouri earlier this year.

In 2001, the federal Minister of Health (Mr. Allan Rock) said Health Canada would prohibit the use of these misleading descriptors and issued a regulatory notice to that effect on December 1, 2001.  A few weeks later he was replaced as Health Minister by Ms. Anne McLellan, and no further steps have been taken by the federal government since that time.  “The delay by Health Canada is unexplained,” said Dr. Kapur.  Our requests for action or explanation have been politely but firmly rebuffed.”

“The legislative system has failed Canadians:  the federal government has shirked its responsibility to put the laws and regulations in place which prevent tobacco companies from misleading consumers about ‘light’ cigarettes.  Now it is up to the justice system to show that Canadian law does not allow companies to act in such a harmful and fraudulent way.



For information:
Ottawa -  Neil Collishaw  (613) 233 4878
In Vancouver (October 25, 26) -  Cynthia Callard (cell)      (613) 850-5594


Chronology of court and government actions on ‘Light and Mild’ cigarettes since 2000.

On January 24, 2001: The government of British Columbia (premier Ujjal Dosanjh) re-filed a lawsuit against the tobacco industry.  The lawsuit includes claims that the industry “sold ‘light’ cigarettes as an alternative to give false reassurance to smokers who were concerned about their health – even though these cigarettes deliver about the same amount of tar and nicotine as regular cigarettes.” (B.C. statement of claim)

May 31, 2001: World No Tobacco Day.  Hon. Allan Rock asks tobacco companies to voluntarily remove "light" and "mild" terms from cigarette packages within 100 days, and asks the Ministerial Advisory Council on Tobacco Control to recommend actions in the event the companies do not comply.  (Health Canada press release)

21 August 2001: Environics reports that two-thirds of Canadian support ending the use of "light" on cigarette labels.  (Environics news release)

8 September 2001: 100 days pass without the cigarette companies removing misleading descriptors from their packages. (Imperial Tobacco's response)

1 November 2001 – The Health Minister Allan Rock releases the findings of the Expert Panel, which advises that regulations under the Tobacco Act be passed to ban the use of the descriptors. (Health Canada press release)

27 November 2001: United States' National Cancer Institute scientific report concludes no benefit from lower tar cigarettes.  (Press release)

1 December 2001: Notice of Intent published in Canada Gazette proposing ban on the terms “light” and “mild”. (Gazette) Deadline for public responses to notice of intent is January 15, 2002..

January  2002: Brazil bans use of "any type of descriptor, on the packaging or in advertising material, such as: classes (s), ultra low tar, low tar, smooth, light, soft, leve, moderate tar, high or any others that could induce  consumers to an erroneous interpretation as to the tar contained in cigarettes.” (Brazilian regulation)

November 2002: The World Health Organization Scientific Advisory Committee on Tobacco Product Regulation recommended a ban on all misleading health and exposure claims and related packaging. (SACTOB recommendations)

December 2002: Health Canada research shows that 2 of every 3 smokers of 'light' cigarettes switched to light based on the belief that there would be fewer health risks. (Health Canada overview of 2001 CTUMS findings)

December 10, 2002: The European Court of Justice rejected a tobacco industry challenge to the EU directive banning the terms  'light' and 'mild', 'low-tar', etc.  (Court ruling)

December 13, 2002: The Quebec Superior Court upheld the federal Tobacco Act against an industry claim of unconstitutionality. The law allows the federal government to regulate how cigarettes are labelled. (Justice Denis' ruling)

March 21, 2003:  Illinois judge Nicholas Byron rules in favour of a class action suit against Philip Morris for the sale of ‘light’ cigarettes (the “Price” suit).  He ordered the company to pay US$10 billion in damages and said that "the course of conduct by Philip Morris related to its fraud in this case is outrageous, both because Philip Morris' motive was evil and the acts showed a reckless disregard for the consumers' rights."

May 8, 2003: Lawyers from the Klein Lyons firm file a class action lawsuit in the name of Kenneth Knight against Imperial Tobacco for damages associated with the deceptive trade practice of 'light' labels on cigarette packages.  (Statement of Claim)

May 20, 2003: World Health Organization adopts text for a global tobacco treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.  The treaty calls for an end to all misleading descriptors, including the use of such terms as "low-tar" and "light." (WHO press release)

June 16, 2003: Complaint filed by the Non Smokers Rights Association with federal Competition Bureau regarding the deceptive trade practice of labelling cigarettes as "light" or "mild. " (NSRA Press Release)

July 15, 2003: Canada signs the framework Convention on Tobacco Control - but doesn't say when it will ratify the treaty, or whether it will implement the requirement to ban the terms "light" and "mild" (Health Canada Press Release)

September 30, 2003: "Low-tar" and similar misleading terms are banned on all cigarettes sold in the European Union. (EU directive)

April 30, 2004:  Imperial Tobacco files its response to the Knight case filed in British Columbia, arguing that it never represented that “light” or “mild” products reduced the risk of disease and that it was the federal government that directed Imperial Tobacco toward “developing and marketing lower delivery products.”

Imperial Tobacco files a “Third Party Notice,” deflecting responsibility for liability in the Knight case to the federal Government.  If consumers were misrepresented about “light” and “mild,” cigarettes, ITL states “then the Federal Government breached the standard of care in the operation of its health programmes,” and should pay any damages awarded in this case.

August 16, 2004: Massachusetts court certifies a class action suit (“Aspinall” suit).  "We conclude that a class action is not only an appropriate method to resolve the plaintiff's allegations, but, pragmatically, the only method whereby purchasers of Marlboro Lights in Massachusetts can seek redress for the alleged deception," Justice John M. Greaney wrote in the majority opinion.

September 14, 2004:  Missouri court certifies ‘light’ class action suit against Philip Morris (“Craft” suit).  (news report)

October 14, 2004:  The Federal government replies to Imperial Tobacco’s Third Party Notice by recommending that the court throw-out the class action suit.