Addiction vs, responsibility

Many of the people involved in the landmark $27-billion lawsuit against tobacco companies likely won’t be around when the case is settled. Tobacco will have killed a number of them long before that.

Many of the people involved in the landmark $27-billion lawsuit against tobacco companies likely won’t be around when the case is settled.

Tobacco will have killed a number of them long before that.

Plaintiffs in the Quebec case that started on Monday in Montreal claim that the tobacco firms knew for decades that their products were harmful.

Collectively, they are seeking damages of $27 billion, making this the largest class-action case in Canadian history.

We’re far from hearing any real testimony, but it appears early on that the defence in this suit will hinge on informed choice.

“Those who decide to start smoking or continue smoking should assume responsibility for a choice they make — because no one can say they don’t know about the dangers associated with smoking,” argued lawyer Suzanne Cote during opening statements on behalf of Imperial Tobacco, Canada’s largest tobacco firm.

Let’s follow that thread for a while and see what unravels.

The plaintiffs coming forward for interviews are no spring chickens. They’ve been smoking for decades — and still do. It’s impossible by now for anyone to say they don’t know smoking could kill them.

But that’s where the addictive nature of tobacco comes into play.

Rob Cunningham is senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society. He says the majority of smokers start their habit before they’re 18 and can’t have full awareness of the health risks associated with smoking — and the difficulties in trying to quit.

Just try telling someone as old as 20 what a stupid idea it was start smoking, or warn them that their addiction will govern their behaviour for the rest of their lives.

By the time most smokers can make an informed choice, they’re addicts. In every sense of the word. It will be interesting to hear what the court has to say about whether being an addict absolves an individual from responsibility for the choices that tobacco companies say every smoker makes on their own.

One can hazard an early guess that the answers to that don’t look good for the defendants.

Besides, tobacco companies spent a long time undermining the message or outright denying their products were deadly. That was during the time the Quebec plaintiffs began smoking.

So how can they say now that a smoker would have to have been “blind” not to have been able to make an informed choice?

The bottom line seems to blame the smokers for their inability to quit. Proceed a few paragraphs up and run this circle as often as you like.

As well, the legal record does not look good for Big Tobacco.

Much of this legal action is modeled on the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of 1998, a class action in which 46 U.S. states took the four largest U.S. tobacco companies to court. They won a combined payout of US$206 billion over 25 years.

Amazingly, the price of tobacco stocks rose after this announcement and the shareholders actually made money on it.

Also in 1998, British Columbia became the first province to sue tobacco companies for health care for smokers. In 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the British Columbia government can sue cigarette companies for the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses dating back 50 years and into the future.

Over the years, every province and territory has joined an action to recover health costs. Alberta came late into that game but they’re in it now, too.

If this case really does hinge on informed choice, it is possible that laws may need to be rewritten taking into account the reduced responsibilities of addicts for their decisions — including decisions leading to drug-related crime.

Not a happy thought, under the current tide of public opinion.

We’ll have to wait and see.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.

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