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Forget lawsuits -- just ban the sale of tobacco altogether

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The provincial government's decision to sue the tobacco industry for the costs of treating smoking-related illnesses places it in an awkward position between the moral high ground and a swamp of hypocrisy.

Justice Minister Andrew Swan said late last week the industry spent "decades and decades lying to the public.

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"They did everything they could to misinform people," Swan said.

There's no question misleading advertising encouraged people to smoke. Tobacco was sold as a lifestyle product; one that relaxed smokers, gave them an aura of cool and let them grab a piece of the good life. In the 1960s, you could smoke almost anywhere: hospitals, airplanes, restaurants, theatres and department stores.

Big Tobacco did everything it could to deny and hide hard evidence its product was condemning some users to serious illness and death.

But the province's hands are also dirty. They want payback from the manufacturers of a product that contributes mightily to government coffers. The province estimates it will receive $256.4 million in revenue from tobacco taxes in 2012-13. That's not chump change, although a spokesman hastened to add the province spends nearly 20 times that amount on health-care services for Manitobans.

Don't confuse apples and oranges. The province will spend more than $5 billion on all health-care services this year, not just those related to tobacco use.

Tobacco taxes are deposited into the government's consolidated fund for general revenues.

The same government spokesman said the province is committed to increasing its annual investment in smoking-cessation programs and aids to approximately $5 million. That's equivalent to two per cent of tobacco-tax revenue.

Manitoba and Saskatchewan both announced Thursday they're joining other provinces in suing the tobacco industry. British Columbia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador have already filed similar lawsuits. The new Manitoba Tobacco Damages and Health Care Costs Recovery Act will allow litigation to proceed.

Defendants in the lawsuit include Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc., Philip Morris U.S.A. Inc., Philip Morris International Inc., JTI-Macdonald Corp., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco International Inc., Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd. and British American Tobacco P.L.C.

The suits have been used successfully in the United States. In 1998, tobacco companies settled with 46 states suing because of Medicaid costs related to smoking-related health issues.

Manitoba has spent considerable resources trying to prevent young people from lighting up and helping smokers quit. But why, I asked Andrew Swan, does the province continue to sell a product it considers devastating to the health of Manitobans? Why not ban it outright?

We danced a while, the attorney general and I.

"In Manitoba, we've done a lot of things to limit smoking," he said.

True. Why not prevent it entirely?

"That may be a debate for another day," he said. "We think the lawsuit is the best way to go."

I asked him one more time.

"As attorney general, I'm not making that decision for Manitobans," Swan said finally. "We want to discourage people from smoking."

The best way to do that would be to refuse to sell the death-causing product. But that won't win voters the same way a David and Goliath battle against Big Tobacco might.

The sale of tobacco is legal. Those who still choose to smoke despite all evidence they're harming their health (and costing our medical system millions of dollars) still have that right.

But if the province really wants to take a stand against smoking, it should do something that will cost it tax revenues and voters. Make the sale of tobacco illegal.

The government knows it is ruining the health of some Manitobans and sucking up health-care dollars. If it feels so strongly Big Tobacco is malignant, why continue to profit from its products?


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 6, 2012 B1

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.

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