Last Friday’s Advocate carried an editorial from the Charlottetown Guardian that applauded the Prince Edward Island government for joining an interprovincial consortium created for the express purpose of suing tobacco companies in order to reclaim health care costs, from decades past, related to illnesses associated with smoking.
Every law-abiding Canadian needs to sit up and take notice, as these lawsuits are a dangerous legal abomination.
The provinces involved — P.E.I., New Brunswick, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan — have created a legal cartel that revolves around the wholly specious argument that Canada’s major tobacco companies conspired in the 1950s to hide research that tied tobacco use to serious health issues.
The provinces are claiming that the tobacco companies’ actions, or rather inactions by failing to sound the alarm over the health effects of tobacco use, have created a health-care burden that should be borne by the tobacco companies.
Firstly, this particular claim is intellectually vacuous. It defies any common logic that you might find a 75- or 80-year-old smoker who wasn’t aware that sucking on a coffin nail wasn’t exactly the healthiest of activities, even way back in the early 1950s.
The bottom line here is that the argument that tobacco companies somehow held back information that might have led governments to treat tobacco differently in the 1960s and beyond is ludicrous.
Secondly, there is the financial matter of tobacco use and taxation. For decades, governments have reaped a greater share of the tobacco dollar than the growers, the processors, the distributors, the advertisers and marketers and the retailers combined.
While all of the private sector players in the tobacco market have input costs, and thus relatively modest margins, governments have no input costs into the sale of tobacco. Their profit margin is infinite, in that they collect large sums of cash with zero input costs.
Thus, prior to the advent of socialized health care, tobacco taxes were simply revenue. Even today, taxes on tobacco products are not specifically earmarked for health care. Those billions of dollars annually just get dumped into general revenues, in spite of decades of false claims that smokers cost the health care system billions of dollars annually.
Several assiduously peer-reviewed studies have shown that smokers as a whole save our health-care system money simply by dying earlier and faster than non-smokers.
Most importantly, though, is that we are being asked to believe that, had tobacco companies been more forthcoming with their health research findings, our governments would have been willing to forego hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tax revenue by simply banning cigarettes outright way back in the 1950s.
I have a great imagination, yet you simply can’t stretch my imagination that far. Federal and provincial governments were more than willing partners in the tobacco industry.
The worst aspect of these lawsuits is that they represent a moral and ethical failure on the part of government. They also represent a dangerous ignorance of history.
The lawsuit consortium has been largely created in order to create a deeper set of pockets with which to battle the tobacco kings. Part of the game plan is to try to force the tobacco companies to settle rather than spend untold sums in a protracted legal battle.
There are times when governments have the moral authority to act in this fashion. This is not one of those instances.
The tobacco trade remains a lawful industry, no less lawful than it has been for generations. For these five provinces to simply chuck 800 years of legal history out the window and apply retroactive taxation is a dangerous legal abomination.
Bill Greenwood is a local freelance columnist.