Canada Ruling Strikes Blow to Tobacco Firms ; Landmark Decision Allows a Province to Sue for Smoking-Related Public Health Costs

Article excerpt

Canada is now the first country outside the US where governments can sue tobacco manufacturers to recover billions of dollars in smoking-related health costs, thanks to a unanimous Canadian Supreme Court ruling last week. Tobacco foes hope other countries will follow Canada's litigious lead.

"Canada is a pioneer in this," says Richard Daynard, president of the Tobacco Control Resource Center. "The legislation would obviously be available as a model for legislation in any other country."

British Columbia's law, upheld last Thursday by the Canadian Supreme Court, allows the western province to sue tobacco companies for the cost of treating past and future health problems related to smoking. Experts estimate the province's claim could reach $8.6 billion ($10 billion Canadian). If Canada's nine other provinces follow British Columbia's lead - and several already plan to do so - experts say claims against the tobacco industry could top $86 billion.

Whether other countries follow Canada's lead depends on political will. A key obstacle governments can face in recovering health care costs incurred by smoking-related problems is the burden of proving tobacco's harm to each individual. But British Columbia's legislation, which relieves the provincial government of providing such proof, provides a model for other governments to sue tobacco companies more readily.

"Not being the US is very important as far as serving as a model. There's the sense that the US is different," says Mr. Daynard, whose organization plans to help other countries draft similar laws. The Supreme Court decision, he adds, "is a great impetus for other countries."

The legislation was brought before the Supreme Court after tobacco companies challenged its constitutionality in connection with a lawsuit between British Columbia and the tobacco industry.

The legislation, passed in 2001, is modeled after a Florida law that allowed the state to sue tobacco companies for smoking-related health costs incurred by Medicaid recipients.

That legislation and the subsequent lawsuit prompted the landmark 1998 US settlement in which tobacco companies agreed to pay 46 states more than $200 billion over 25 years. Antitobacco activists in Canada hope to strike a similar blow to the industry. …