Health experts are urging Australian governments to sue international tobacco companies for billions of dollars in healthcare costs for treating smoking-related illnesses.
Canadian provincial governments have launched several successful lawsuits against tobacco giants in recent years, and experts suggest Australia should follow Canada’s lead.
Smoking rates in Australia have fallen dramatically, but it still kills an estimated 15,000 people every year on top of mounting healthcare and social costs.
While legal action would be a costly avenue, public support for tobacco control has never been stronger.
Dr Ross MacKenzie from Macquarie University said such litigation should be Australia’s next step to help with tobacco control.
“The last estimate was 2004-2005, the costs of smoking, health, social et cetera were $31 billion,” Dr MacKenzie said.
“Now we think, and other people think, that the cost is over $40 billion, now maybe approaching $50 billion every year.
“In terms of taxation, you’re looking at $8 billion or $9 billion, so it doesn’t come close to covering the cost of smoking.”
Dr MacKenzie said Australia can learn a lot from Canada.
“British Columbia started the process in 1998, so it would be a lengthy process, but all other nine provinces have since joined,” he said.
“So all 10 provinces are suing the tobacco industry for many billions of dollars, and you know, it looks pretty encouraging.”
Australian governments ‘need to move quickly’
But the tobacco industry has mounted a number of challenges to delay progress and drive up costs.
Mal Byrne from Tindall Gask Bentley lawyers in Adelaide said even if the political will exists, there are hoops to jump through before such legal action could be taken.
“There needs to be a duty of care from the tobacco companies towards the Government to allow the Government to sue them, and at the moment there isn’t,” Mr Byrne said.
“The tobacco companies don’t owe a duty of care to Commonwealth and state governments, they owe a duty of care to the people who purchase their product.”
Mr Byrne said it is not improbable, but governments in Australia would also need to take steps quickly.
“[If] one of the Canadian provinces ends up being successful, given the amount of healthcare costs to the public from smoking, I can see governments seriously considering it,” he said.
“But they do need to move quickly, because if governments around the world all start launching actions at the same time there’s not going to be enough money to go around.”
In a statement, a Philip Morris spokesperson said the company is committed to changing its business to replace cigarettes with “smoke-free alternatives”.
“Instead of promoting costly litigation, we would encourage those who want to see a smoke-free Australia focus their attention on proven products that have the potential to substantially improve public health.”