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Provinces must seek anti-smoking measures in Big Tobacco settlement: health groups

Health organizations were shut out of the closed-door negotiations

Three national health organizations want Canada’s premiers to push for initiatives to reduce smoking during settlement negotiations with major tobacco companies, years after provinces sued to recoup health-care costs.

In an open letter, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Lung Association and Heart and Stroke Foundation say governments should make cutting tobacco use a top priority in talks that began four years ago as part of the provinces’ lawsuits seeking a collective $500 billion in damages.

“Tobacco causes a devastating toll in disease and death, a toll that is contributing to the ongoing crisis in the health-care system,” the groups say in the letter released Monday, ahead of World No Tobacco Day, an annual campaign by the World Health Organization to raise awareness about the harms of tobacco use.

Lawsuits by all 10 provinces, with British Columbia filing the first one in 1998, are against Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc., and JTI-Macdonald Corp., as well as their foreign parent corporations.

The health organizations say at least 10 per cent of the money from a settlement should go toward long-term funding, independent of government, to slash smoking. They are also calling for a ban on tobacco promotion by the industry and measures that would require the defendants to make additional payments if targets to reduce tobacco use are not met. And they want the companies to publicly disclose millions of pages of internal documents.

Before the letter was released, a spokeswoman for the B.C. Ministry of Attorney General said she could not comment on any plans the province may have to introduce measures to reduce tobacco use following a settlement. She cited confidentiality obligations due to a court-ordered mediation after the tobacco companies filed for creditor protection in 2019.

That happened after a ruling by the Quebec Court of Appeal, which upheld a landmark judgment ordering the companies to pay nearly $14 billion in damages to smokers in the province who became ill or were addicted to tobacco. The ruling found the firms chose profits over the health of their customers, who are still waiting for a settlement.

A spokesman for Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., one of the companies contacted about any potential initiatives to cut tobacco use, said in an email he could not comment while mediation is ongoing.

Rob Cunningham, a lawyer and senior policy analyst for the Canadian Cancer Society, said the tobacco firms can only get out of bankruptcy protection in a settlement agreed to by all provinces, giving governments leverage to negotiate strict measures.

“This is a unique, one-time, historic opportunity to reduce tobacco use, to control the tobacco industry, and we need to take advantage of it,” Cunningham said in an interview. “The whole reason why provinces sued in the first place was health-care costs.”

He saidmultiple diseases and 16 types of cancer, including cancer of the lungs, throat, esophagus and pancreas, are associated with tobacco use.

While the territories did not file lawsuits, they are being represented in the negotiations by a consortium of law firms working on behalf of six of the provinces — British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Health organizations were shut out of the closed-door negotiations, unlike in the U.S., Cunningham said, where governments in all 50 states were involved in a similar settlement with tobacco companies in 1998. That’s when an independent Americanfoundation was funded to control the tobacco industry, which was forced to disclose 40 million pages of previously secret documents.

Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, said Canadian jurisdictions should introduce measures that would force tobacco companies to wind down their businesses “instead of getting them to foot the bill on traditional programs.”

She pointed to New Zealand, which passed a law to ban — for life — the sale of tobacco products to anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 2009.

“What we really need is to have this industry disabled,” Callard said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2023.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

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