VANCOUVER — The Supreme Court of Canada will consider whether the federal government should be named a defendant and dragged into massive court cases aiming to force tobacco companies to pay for health-care costs.
It’s another incremental victory for British Columbia and other provinces that have spent years mounting the lawsuit, said Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society.
“It has been going on for a long time, but we’re getting closer,” he said Thursday after the high court granted the federal government leave to appeal two B.C. Court of Appeal decisions.
The B.C. government launched its case against the tobacco companies in 2001, aiming to recover billions of health-care dollars spent on treating smoking-related diseases.
The second case involves a class-action suit against the makers of so-called mild or light cigarettes.
The cases have been challenged on several fronts, including an effort by the tobacco companies to have the legislation that cleared the way for the B.C. lawsuit declared unconstitutional. They failed.
Six provinces — Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan — have now passed or are in the process of passing legislation that will pave the way for lawsuits meant to recoup costs.
Two years ago, the tobacco companies petitioned the B.C. Supreme Court to add Ottawa as a third-party defendant partially liable for any order to repay health costs.
The B.C. Supreme Court rejected their argument, but the B.C. Appeal Court, in a 3-2 decision, overturned that ruling after accepting the companies’ argument that the federal government had a role in designing some tobacco strains and was responsible for its conduct around warning consumers of tobacco risks.
Among other things, the companies claimed the federal government worked with them decades ago to develop “safer” low-tar cigarettes, products now known to cause cancer and disease.
A spokesman for Imperial Tobacco was unavailable for comment Thursday, but the company issued a statement last December following the B.C. Appeal Court 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 statement said.
“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.”
Cunningham said the tobacco companies are hoping the federal government will act as their insurer.
“The tobacco industry’s strategy has been to try and blame other people, to blame smokers, to try and shift the blame away from anyone except themselves,” he said.
“Our view is that it should be the tobacco industry that’s held to account for their wrongs over many decades in causing the tobacco epidemic, and that the federal government is right to try and be removed as a third party defendant.”
Cunningham said although B.C. has not specified how much it is seeking in damages, the federal government has estimated that with claims from all the provinces together, damages sought might top $100 billion.
As usual, the high court gave no reasons for granting leave to appeal.