OTTAWA – Should the feds and Big Tobacco share the burden for the costs of smoking?
That’s one of the questions before the Supreme Court of Canada as it prepares to release a landmark ruling on Friday.
The top court’s decision will determine if the federal government should be dragged into court cases aimed at getting tobacco companies to foot the bills for smokers who get sick.
Those legal claims could run into millions, if not billions, of dollars.
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The Supreme Court will rule on two cases in which the tobacco companies want Ottawa to also be held responsible for any damages that might be found.
One case involves a class-action suit against Imperial Tobacco by smokers who say they were tricked into thinking so-called mild or light cigarettes were less harmful than regular cigarettes.
The other concerns a lawsuit by the British Columbia government against tobacco companies to recoup billions of provincial health-care dollars spent on treating smoking-related diseases.
The cases have been challenged on several fronts. The tobacco companies tried to have the law that paved the way for the B.C. lawsuit declared unconstitutional. They failed.
Imperial Tobacco then petitioned the B.C. Supreme Court to add the federal government as a third-party defendant partially liable for health costs.
The B.C. Supreme Court rejected their argument. But the provincial appeals court overturned that ruling after accepting the company’s argument that Ottawa had a role in designing some tobacco strains and was responsible for its conduct around warning consumers of tobacco risks.
Along with B.C., three other provinces – Ontario, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador – are suing the tobacco companies. Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Quebec and Alberta have also announced their intention to pursue lawsuits.
A spokesman for Imperial Tobacco Canada declined comment until after Friday’s ruling. But the company released a statement after the B.C. Court of Appeal’s December 2009 decision.
“The government of Canada has been a senior partner of the tobacco industry for decades. They have legalized tobacco in Canada, heavily regulated it, and taxed it to the tune of billions of dollars every year,” the company said at the time.
“It is only right that the government of Canada stands next to the tobacco industry in these cases and be accountable for its role in the history of tobacco control strategy.”
Rob Cunningham, a lawyer with the Canadian Cancer Society, says Big Tobacco is trying to pass the buck.
“The tobacco industry’s tactic, historically for many decades in cases of this nature, has been to try and shift the blame,” Cunningham said.
“They say, ‘Well, we’re not responsible, somebody else is. For example, the smokers should have known the health effects. It’s not our fault.’ And here they’re trying to blame the federal government.
“We think the tobacco industry should be held responsible for its own actions and not try and shift the blame.”