By The Canadian Press, Globe and Mail, March 12, 2012
A landmark tobacco case with up to $27 billion at stake started Monday in a Montreal courtroom, with Canada's three largest cigarette companies squaring off against a group of Quebec smokers.
The class-action case is considered the biggest in Canadian history.
The smokers claim in a lawsuit that they were duped for years by big tobacco companies, as they became addicted to cigarettes and then suffered from serious health problems.
One of the lead plaintiffs told reporters Monday during a break from the trial that she started smoking in the 1960s after being “programmed” by industry TV advertisements that made cigarettes seem cool.
“Smoking was in fashion,” Cecilia Letourneau said in the corridor of the Montreal courthouse.
“I chose to smoke to show that I was ‘in'. ”
The case marks the first time tobacco companies have gone to trial in a civil suit in Canada.
The defendants are Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd.; Rothmans, Benson & Hedges; and JTI-Macdonald.
A lawyer representing Imperial Tobacco said Monday that with all the publicly available information on the dangers of tobacco, smokers must take responsibility for their decision to light up.
“Just because it's a legal product doesn't absolve us of liability, but just because there's risks and dangers associated with it doesn't mean we're automatically at fault, either,” Deborah Glendinning said in the hallway during the break.
“I'm looking very forward to seeing what kind of proof they can bring because I don't think they've got it and I believe we will ultimately be successful.”
In the United States, the tobacco industry has been walloped with legal bills.
It has resolved actions by the states aimed at recovering tobacco-related health-care costs under the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. That agreement, signed in 1998, calls on the companies to pay a minimum of US$206 billion over the first 25 years of the agreement. In 2006, the U.S. government also won a racketeering suit against the major tobacco companies.
So far, legal battles over tobacco have made less waves in Canada.
One other civil case that has been certified stems from a 2003 filing in British Columbia, involving light and mild cigarettes. A trial date hasn't been set in that case and others filed elsewhere in Canada are nowhere near trial. The Quebec case took more than 13 years to make it before a judge after delays, motions and appeals.
Separately, provinces are also seeking the right to pursue tobacco companies to recoup health-care costs. Four provinces have filed: British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador. The six others have announced their intention to file.
The Quebec civil trial won't be over for some time. After the plaintiffs make their case, the defendants won't start theirs until 2013. Eventual appeals are inevitable at the end.
We must never doubt that, in a democracy, the people are in power. Here, in a civil suit aimed at the tobacco companies for alleged "duping" (please note the "u"; it is NOT an "o"!) of the Canadian public, while knowing that their product was both addictive and destructive to health.
There are very few Canadians who have not been touched by the cancer that came after decades of smoking by a member of their family. In my own case, my previous father-in-law and mother-in-law, both longtime smokers, died of lung cancer, while my father, who smoked cigarettes for most of his adult life of 91 years, eventually died of cancerous tumors. Also, like Cecilia Letourneau, I smoked while in college in the early 60's, believing that it was a sign that I was "in" partly as a result of the waves of advertising that blanketed Ontario and university cities' radio, television and print media as well as billboard advertising on many corners. Back in 1981, while on a trip to Portland Oregon, to visit family, I encountered a 70-plus relative of my former spouse who depended, for his breathing on an inhaler, and laboured profoundly just to get enough oxygen. Seeing his plight, I quit smoking (the pipe) cold turkey.
A co-worker recently lost his spouse of forty-seven years to the big "C" and only weeks ago, learned that his best friend has been diagnosed with cancer, enrolled in chemotherapy and has had to discontinue his job, retiring prematurely in deep fear for his own life.
There is no doubt that bear some responsibility for making poor choices in my past. However, the virulence of the tobacco products on human health, many believe, has been well known and documented for many decades; however, this information has been "confidential" and forbidden from release by those same companies.
Clearly, if the judgement in this case favours the plaintiffs, and finds the tobacco companies guilty, and even a substantial portion of the claim has to be paid, it will pave the way for other suits from provinces struggling with rising health care costs, many of those costs directly attributable to the affect of both primary and secondary smoke on their lungs, their circulation and the overall health.
Removing the option of advertising was a significant step, several years ago; however, it did not go far enough. We need to ban the sale of tobacco, given that the recent data suggests a spike in numbers of young people who are beginning to smoke. In the U.S., for example, for every 2 people who die each day from smoking-related cancer, 5 young people start to smoke. And those numbers include both boys and girls, whereas, in the past, the tobacco users were primarily male.
We will be watching this case, and others to follow, in the hope that we can eradicate tobacco from public consumption, and health care's exponentially rising costs.