Australia’s state and federal governments are being urged to follow in Canada’s footsteps and sue tobacco companies so they can claw back billions of dollars spent treating smoking-related illnesses.
Health experts say while Australia led the world in introducing plain-packaging for tobacco products, smoking remains the country’s leading preventable cause of death and disease, with estimated annual costs of at least $31.5 billion.
They want governments to keep up the pressure on tobacco companies and consider taking legal action action to help recover some of those costs.
“Legal action would clearly pose substantial challenges, 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,” the experts wrote in the Medical Journal of Australia on Monday.
“Successful litigation could reduce its financial capacity to engage in future activities and undermine any remaining credibility it may have in the policy arena.”
Macquarie University health studies lecturer Dr Ross MacKenzie, Curtin University’s professor of health policy Mike Daube and Canadian tobacco control consultant Eric LeGresley wrote that while legal action would be costly for governments to pursue, public support for tobacco control has never been stronger.
They argue Australian governments could follow action taken by the Canadian province of British Colombia, the first jurisdiction in the Commonwealth to launch legal action to recover tobacco-related health care costs in 1998. After a long legal battle with the tobacco manufacturers, British Colombia teamed up with five other Canadian provinces in 2012 to sue tobacco companies for tens of billions of dollars.
Dr MacKenzie and his colleagues wrote that rising health care costs could make suing tobacco companies attractive to state governments.
“Beyond the potential to recover billions of dollars spent on treatment of diseases caused by smoking, publicity around legal action would also emphasise the health and social impacts of tobacco industry corporate behaviour, furthering the denormalisation of smoking in Australia and generating public and political support for further public health measures,” they said.
Their calls come just weeks after mining billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest announced plans to launch legal action against tobacco firms in an attempt to gain billions of dollars in compensation for damage caused by smoking.
His move was part of an attempt to convince state and federal governments to raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21.
Smoking-related illnesses currently kill 15,000 Australians a year.