Ontario government initiates legislation against tobacco industry

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Ontario could soon be suing big tobacco companies over money the province has spent on tobacco-related health care costs.

Premier Dalton McGuinty allowed for legislation to be put forth to allow the province to sue the tobacco industry as a whole for billions of dollars of medical costs.

British Columbia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan have already begun to pass legislation of this nature and the Supreme Court of Canada has allowed it.

“Right now all the people of Ontario are paying those costs which are $1.6 billion a year. Other provinces say that those responsible for the costs should be paying for the costs,” Chris Bentley, attorney general of Ontario, said.

Bentley explained the legislation claims tobacco companies presented their products in ways that diluted their health risks to consumers in the past.

“The lawsuits allege that the tobacco companies targeted their product to children, marketed their cigarettes as being safer when they were not, kept research away from the public and got together to undermine the public health warnings about tobacco,” he said.

If passed, this bill would legally allow the government to sue those it deems responsible for those health care costs. “It gives the government the right to sue for harm done to individuals,” Bentley said, adding he believed tobacco companies should be the ones paying for tobacco-related health care costs, not taxpayers.

So far the bill has received positive reaction in provincial assembly and with the public.

“We’ve been advocating this for years so we’re really pleased,” Michael Perley, director of the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco, said. “This is an extremely important step forward for justice and accountability for the tobacco industry.”

Perley is confident the accusations will stand in court.

“Cases of illness are going back to the 1960s, so this is not anything recent,” he said. “[The companies’] own documents show that they knew what they were doing.”

While Perley is happy with the legislation, he explained there are non-monetary provisions the settlement could contain. These could include a total elimination of tobacco advertising, plain packaging for products or other regulations.

But Bentley did not want to get ahead of the legislation.

“The issue is who is going to be accountable for the health care costs for tobacco related injuries,” he explained, adding the settlement is still to be discussed.

However, Perley speculated the settlement will reach $50 to $60 billion, based on documentation. The money is likely to go toward government services.

“The money collected in the U.S. settlements went toward tobacco control, roads and infrastructure, and other services,” Perley said. However, Bentley stressed the government is currently focusing on the legislation, not the allocation of the settlement.

“We started the second reading [in provincial legislature] the other day,” Bentley added.

Canadian tobacco companies Imperial Tobacco and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges were contacted but were unable to return comment prior to deadline.

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