Canada: Tobacco companies file lawsuit over health warnings

April 30, 2012

Hit by federal regulations and massive class action lawsuits, two of Canada’s tobacco companies have struck back with legal action of their own.

Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd. and JTI-Macdonald Corp. have launched proceedings in Ontario Superior Court to attempt to strike down cigarette package warning regulations that came into effect last fall.

The new regulations require 75 per cent of packages to be filled with health warnings, up from the previous level of 50 per cent.

In separate lawsuits filed in Ontario Superior Court, the companies claim the restriction infringes on their right to freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The new legal front opens as the companies face down a $27-billion class action lawsuit in Quebec Superior court brought on behalf of cigarette addicts and patients who have suffered tobacco-related illnesses. Dozens of lawyers are fighting it out in a trial expected to last well into 2013.

In the Quebec class action, the tobacco companies have maintained it was up to the federal government to warn smokers since research about smoking-related illness and death started to emerge in the 1960s.

“Now that the government has required improved warnings, the industry is trying to strike them down,” said Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society.

In a press release John Clayton, Imperial’s vice-president of corporate affairs, accused the federal government of “avoiding the country’s number one tobacco problem, the illegal tobacco market (that) avoids all taxes and current regulations.”

The statement skirted the main legal challenge for the company posed by a 2007 Supreme Court of Canada decision that found the 50 per cent cigarette label rule was a reasonable restriction on freedom of expression given Parliament’s aim to reduce smoking.

“They opposed 20 per cent, they opposed 50 per cent. It’s a highly objectionable legal strategy,” Mr. Cunningham said.

Imperial, the biggest of the two companies which filed its suit Wednesday, declined interview requests. JTI-Macdonald filed its suit without announcing it early this month.

Canada was the first country to require 50 per cent warnings in 2001 but the new regulations only bring the country back to the lead pack for tough packaging regulations, according to Mr. Cunningham.

Australia goes further requiring even larger warnings and bland generic company labelling.

Source: Globe & Mail (April 26, 2012)