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Government Blows Smoke on Tobacco Lawsuit


Smokers and non-smokers alike should be concerned about attempts by the British Columbia government to sue tobacco companies for the health care costs their products require. Legislation advanced by the government tramples longstanding principles of law. If allowed to proceed, it opens avenues for dismissals by legislatures of other fundamental individual rights and restraints on government power.

A slightly-different version of this essay was originally published in the National Post.


Karen Selick

 Author Notes

Libertarian (NOT conservative) lawyer practising in Belleville, Ontario and a columnist for Canadian Lawyer magazine.

Ms. Selick maintains her own web site at which others of her writings can be found.

 Essay - 10/18/1999

The tobacco case now [October 18th, 1999] in its third week in a British Columbia courtroom reminds me of what sometimes happens among children playing a game. The schoolyard bully realizes he can't win the game under the normal rules, so he makes up new rules mid-way through the game and tries to force them on the other kids.

The bully in this case is the B.C. government. The game is called Shake Down Big Tobacco. The new rules are called the Tobacco Damages and Health Care Costs Recovery Act (TDHCCRA), passed by the B.C. Legislature in 1997. The other players are Canada's tobacco manufacturing companies.

Smokers and non-smokers alike should pay close attention. The legal implications of this case go far beyond the simple question of whether or not B.C. will be successful in siphoning a few billion dollars out of tobacco companies' coffers. Although the act itself is rather narrow in scope (applying only to tobacco lawsuits), it is breathtaking in its audacity and terrifying in its potential. If the courts uphold it, we can expect to see arrogant legislatures abandon all restraint in trashing traditional legal principles and procedures whenever they find them inconvenient.

If the B.C. government wins this skirmish it will proceed with its lawsuit (already started, but on hold while the players sort out the rules of the game), claiming that the tobacco companies should pay the costs of health care benefits that the government incurs as a result of B.C. residents smoking.

Before it changed the rules, B.C. used to shake down the tobacco companies and their customers using the old-fashioned method called taxation. The companies argued that tobacco taxes already covered the health care costs associated with smoking, but B.C. wanted more.

For one thing, it had been watching its role model bullies south of the border. A number of U.S. states made a few little rule changes to their legal systems and all fifty states walked away with over $246-billion (US) of tobacco companies' money.

The trouble is that the rule changes required to pull this off aren't really so little, and it's not just Big Tobacco that will be affected if the B.C. government is allowed to cheat like this. Like all bullies, once it gets a taste of how lucrative cheating can be, it'll try it in other games, too. The U.S. role models, for instance, are already suing gun manufacturers and are reported to be looking rapaciously at car makers too.

And when the governments of the other provinces see that these tactics work in Canada as well as the U.S., they'll want to set off on their own adventures in deep-pocket mining. Ontario, for example, has already launched a $40-billion (US) lawsuit against tobacco companies, but in U.S. courts. No doubt it will happily return to its home turf if the B.C. challenge goes the "right" way.

That's why I -- a lifetime non-smoker, who thinks smoking is a repulsive, unhealthy habit and a ridiculous waste of money -- am hoping the tobacco companies win in B.C. Corny as it may sound, Big Tobacco is my hero in this battle. It is fighting for the rule of law, the constitutional separation of powers, and Canadians' freedom from arrogant, oppressive government.

How, exactly, does the TDHCCRA change the rules? First, it eliminates the old-fashioned requirement of any normal lawsuit for the plaintiff to prove that the defendant actually caused the plaintiff's loss. The new law directs a court trying a tobacco case that it "must presume" that exposure to tobacco products caused or contributed to disease.

Traditionally, the onus was on the plaintiff to prove its case. It had to submit sufficient persuasive evidence to tip the scales of justice in its favour. Now, the validity of the plaintiff's claim will be presumed, and the onus will be on the defendant tobacco manufacturers to prove that they didn't cause smokers' health problems.

If this were a criminal case, this change would be like saying an accused person is presumed guilty until he proves himself innocent.

Another section of the new law will allow the government to use statistical information to prove that smoking has caused various illnesses and related health care costs.

This is an attempt to repeal not only an established rule of evidence, but also a rule of logic. Statistical correlation is not the same as causation. There are many factors besides smoking -- such as low income -- that correlate to an increased risk of cancer, heart disease and other ailments often described as "smoking-related."

In a murder case, such a reliance on statistics would be like saying: "Clifford Olson killed a lot of people, so statistically speaking there's a good chance he also killed a few more who are missing. We can't prove that he killed the victim in this particular case, but we'll rely on the statistics and convict him anyhow."

What we have here is a bizarre twist on a problem that has been much in the news lately. Critics have been accusing Canadian courts of usurping the role of the legislature by rewriting laws instead of sticking to their traditional role of adjudicating disputes. Judges have responded testily, claiming the critics are trying to restrict their judicial independence.

In the TDHCCRA, we have a provincial Legislature seeking to usurp the role of the courts, by building the outcome of disputes right into the words of the law. Translated out of legalese and crammed into a nutshell, the act reads pretty much like this: "When the government sues tobacco companies, the government shall win."

Moreover, the TDHCCRA violates another established legal principle by legislating retroactively. It repeals all existing time limits for starting tobacco lawsuits and revives old lawsuits that had previously been dismissed for contravening the Limitation Act.

The B.C. government knows it's on shaky ground with this new form of legislative looting. In July, after some scathing public criticism, it hastily amended the TDHCCRA to remove a few sections that flouted traditional legal principles even more outrageously than the ones I've summarized here.

However, if the courts decide this insolent trashing of the rule of law is constitutional, there'll be no holds barred. No matter what you think of smoking, if you value your freedom, you'd better starting rooting for the tobacco manufacturers.

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Opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author, and are not necessarily shared by conservativeforum.org or the members of its Editorial Board.