Comment: B.C. residents deserve a voice deciding the fate of Big Tobacco

Secrecy of negotiations over lawsuit does not preclude government from consulting the public and experts

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Within the next few months, Premier David Eby will likely be asked to make a decision that will affect the health of British Columbians for decades.

Canada’s largest tobacco companies are expected to offer a greater share of their future revenues to settle the province’s long-standing lawsuit against them.

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A thumbs-up by Eby to this deal would keep these deadly products on the market indefinitely and let tobacco manufacturers continue marketing their newer nicotine products that are addicting youth at an alarming rate across Canada.

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A rejection of this offer could force the companies to wind down their operations in Canada.

The premier has had years to prepare for this decision. As attorney-general, he was in charge of the lawsuit since early 2019 when the companies first asked for insolvency protection and closed-door negotiations to settle all the lawsuits they faced in Canada.

Continued delays recently prompted an Ontario judge to direct a mediator to prepare a draft settlement. Because this will be done under the framework of insolvency law, this proposal will almost certainly aim to return the companies to profitability while providing payments to B.C. and the many other creditors. Because the companies have little savings, such payments will largely be deferred and will depend on future sales.

Almost 25 years have passed since the provincial government initiated its lawsuit against tobacco companies as part of its strategy to “protect B.C. kids from Big Tobacco.”

Yet in all of that time, and through all of the changes in leadership, not once has the government sought the views of British Columbians on how to ensure that the lawsuit results in better protection for kids, better health for communities, or a reduced burden on the health-care system.

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The tobacco industry did not respond to the lawsuit by altering its business practices, and it did not stop it from recruiting children to smoking. One in three smokers in B.C. today were under 11 years of age when the lawsuit was filed. One in four high school seniors in B.C. today have been hooked by the industry’s newer electronic nicotine devices.

An agreement by B.C.’s government to keep tobacco companies alive just so they can make future payments will make things worse. It would give tacit approval to the lethal business practices that the government once sought to censure. It would perpetuate the harm to citizens that the province once sought redress. It would cause economic harm to those whose health has been hurt by addiction because it would use their purchases to finance payments to government.

A recent survey by Leger found a high level of support — 72 per cent in B.C. — for an outcome that would phase out commercial tobacco sales. When asked if they would prefer a phaseout and a cash settlement, twice as many Canadians felt it more important for lawsuits to be used to phase out sales.

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Eby is missing this picture if he does not recognize that his response to an offer from the companies is a major public policy decision — one that deserves meaningful input from the public and transparency about the consequences on his part.

Knowing that a draft settlement is in development, Eby should move quickly to initiate such consultations and to be open about the choices before him.

The confidentiality of the negotiations does not prevent government from providing the public with its own analysis. It does not stop the legislature from holding public hearings on the future of tobacco nor preclude the minister of health from talking to community leaders and experts. It does not block the province from discussing ways to wind down the commercial sale of tobacco or designing interim supply systems that could help B.C.’s communities become nicotine-free.

Eby must soon decide whether to allow the tobacco industry to survive or whether to allow it to be buried by its debts. But it’s not too late for him to ask British Columbians which future they want.

Cynthia Callard is executive-director of Physicians for a Smoke-free Canada; Flory Doucas is a co-director of Quebec Coalition for Tobacco Control; Les Hagen is the spokesperson for Canada’s Action on Smoking and Health.

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Originally posted 2023-11-16 00:00:15.