The battle against smoking tobacco would be closer to victory if our provincial governments ended their dependence on tobacco taxes and lawsuits against Big Tobacco. Last month Prince Edward Island filed suit against tobacco industries to recover health care costs going back to 1953, making it just the latest in a long list of Canadian provinces to do so. P.E.I. knows its chances for a big revenge are good. The tobacco industry looks like a cash-cow to provincial governments desperate for additional income.
Yet P.E.I.’s lawsuit is without value. It feeds off the popular view that Canadians have been helpless victims of tobacco businesses which have tricked them about the dangers of tobacco smoking. But the whole idea of holding the tobacco company uniquely responsible for the health consequences of smoking cig is a gross act of history.
Big Tobacco has had a lot of enablers, including our own provincial governments.
As anyone who was alive in the 1960s and ’70s will confirm, it has long been common knowledge that there were significant health risks from tobacco smoking. As early as 1964 the U.S. Surgeon-General linked smoking cigarettes and lung cancer.
This was followed by a succession of similar smoking warnings from numerous national and international public health organizations. In 1968, terminally ill actor William Talman from the Perry Mason TV show filmed a extended broadcast commercial in which he censured his lung cancer on a three-package-a-day habit.
By the 1980s there was no excuse for anyone to be ignorant of the smoking facts. Cigarette packs carried labels warning of the health risks of smoking habit. Advertising by tobacco industries in magazines, TV, and radio was illegal. Airlines prohibited smoking tobacco on flights.
As evidence that the message was sinking in, Canadian smoking rates dropped. As of 1987, 44 percent of inhabitants who had started smoking tobacco had quit.