Australia urged to sue Big Tobacco for past healthcare costs


Australia should consider suing Big Tobacco to recover the tens of billions spent each year on smoking-related illnesses, health researchers say.

More than $30 billion is estimated to be spent each year on the health, social and economic costs related to smoking as one of the country's preventable causes of death.

Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia, three health researchers have argued that launching multi-billion-dollar lawsuits should be the next tactic used here to drive down smoking rates, considering the country's recent success in defending its plain packaging laws.

"Unless the momentum of tobacco control is maintained with further innovative approaches, the industry will inevitably develop new strategies to undermine measures in place, and public health gains will be at risk," wrote the authors, led by Dr Ross MacKenzie, a health researcher at Macquarie University.

"Litigation is increasingly recognised as a valuable tobacco-control approach."

The journal article, published on Monday, was co-authored with Eric LeGresley, a tobacco control consultant in Ottawa, and Professor Mike Daube from Curtin University.

There were an estimated 2.6 million smokers in Australia in 2014 - a deadly habit that kills an estimated 15,000 people every year.

Last year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said a reduction in smoking remained "one of the big public health successes in our generation".

But whether the government would be interested in launching another major legal case after a big win on plain packaging reforms remains to be seen.

The authors themselves admit that the proposal is risky: new laws would almost certainly need to be passed to allow a lawsuit to go ahead, state and federal governments would likely have to combine forces to do it, and, even then, they would face a "determined and obstructionist defence" from the tobacco industry.

In Canada, for instance, similar lawsuits aimed at clawing back healthcare costs were first launched nearly 20 years ago and are still being argued before the courts - with no guarantee they will be successful.

"Legal action would clearly pose substantial challenges," they wrote, "but the potential benefits of holding tobacco companies to account through litigation mean that it could play an important role in future Australian tobacco control strategies."

Professor Sanchia Aranda, CEO of Cancer Council Australia, said legal action was one of several proposals worth examining.

"We would support any initiative to hold tobacco companies to account for the terrible impact their products have on our population's health," she said, adding that more funding for anti-smoking advertising campaigns was also worthwhile.

Senior lawyers who were involved on both sides of Australia's plain-packaging legal case either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment on the potential for further litigation.

A spokesman for the Federal Minister for Health Greg Hunt said the Turnbull government had a strong suite of measures to discourage smoking, educate the community on the health risks and had just increased tobacco tax again.

It is understood the government believes that there would be virtually no prospect of success with any legal action against the tobacco companies.

Maurice Blackburn Lawyers partner Rod Hodgson said it came as no surprise if the current Federal Government had no "enthusiasm" for the concept.

"They have been reasonably close to the tobacco industry for some time and there have been some very prominent members of the conservative side of politics who have occupied senior positions in tobacco companies in Australia," Mr Hodgson said.

"There is certainly precedent for this type of action elsewhere in the western world, in particular in North America. In the United States, a number of governments have taken legal action against tobacco companies to recoup the huge sums of money that are associated with the health costs of people who have had their lives shortened and taken by tobacco."

Mr Hodgson said there was no reason why "with the right political appetite" a similar type of framework couldn't be put in place in Australia.

"Multinational tobacco companies should be held to account financially for the health costs associated with their products, which maims and kills and is designed to addict people," he said.

British American Tobacco Australia senior corporate and government affairs manager Josh Fett said Australian smokers contributed over $11 billion dollars in taxes to the Australian Government last year and that the litigation would be just another tax in disguise.

This story Australia urged to sue Big Tobacco for past healthcare costs first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.