Tobacco companies cry hypocrisy—with cause

For a non-smoker it is a tough call to lean in the direction of tobacco companies, but the latest fad in Canada—sue the tobacco companies to pay for the health costs of their products—seems, well, a tad hypocritical and smells of more than just smoke.

Now I know hypocrisy is virtually a political pillar, but this time it is so bleeding obvious that it’s creating sympathy for the merchants of addiction, and that’s surely a sign that it is not just lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease victims who are not well.

Hard on the heels of the Canadian province of Ontario suing for $50 billion in damages from tobacco companies, Quebec has followed suit so to speak, and put its hat in the smoke ring for a cool $30 billion.

Now it has to be said that Quebec has all the appearance of a province where people smoke as if it is a cure for cancer, but that is beside the point, apparently.

Also to one side is the enormous problem of Quebec’s illicit trade in contraband cigarettes, which the provincial government spends many dollars on trying to snuff out, but to little avail. You see, it loses millions and millions of dollars in this illegal trade—zsuspected of being centred in First Nations reserves—and is said to account for 40% of the Quebec market.

The tobacco companies Quebec, Ontario, and British Colombia (way back in 2000) have set their sights on are not, however, operating illegally. In fact so legal is their trade that the Quebec government rakes in about $700 million annually in taxes on cigarettes. That’s a bigger profit than the tobacco companies say they get from the lucrative little cancer sticks. Country-wide the taxes amount to about $7 billion which comes from a 60 to 70% markup on the cost of a pack of fags.

The government creams such a profit from the sales of the legal product, how on earth can it justify suing its own partner for the health damage supposedly caused?

Experience of course shows that governments can justify finding new sources of revenue most of the time, but particularly so when their own budgets are in free fall as is certainly the case now.

The multi-billion dollar question is, therefore, why pick on the tobacco companies?

Why not sue all the other ‘legals’ that so often lie beneath untold misery to individuals and families, and add mega dollars to health costs province and country wide? You know, the alcohol companies or the gambling casinos or the plethora of artery-clogging, waist-ballooning, fast fat food joints?

They are all legal. They all present potential social and health mayhem. They are also tax cash cows for governments. Why have they not been asked to, in a word, cough?

Listening to Quebec’s Health Minister justify the suit, it seems one of the big differences between the tobacco companies and the purveyors of booze, fat and debt is that they need to be punished for all those years when they hid the known consequences of their products from their hapless consumers. In that respect there have been a number of mega payouts to people in the U.S. who have successfully sued the tobacco companies, but unlike the provincial governments across Canada, they were not also benefiting massively from the product at the same time.

While it pains me to say this, it would appear that the tobacco companies are a convenient monster.

They have been kicked around for some time, and rightly so in terms of hidden addictive elements, hidden known health risks and the like. Few people are going to put their hand up and say leave off the poor little tobacco industry. For most they are seriously unlovable.

But boy are they rich and, Quebec and Ontario and all the others hope, highly vulnerable in their pariah status…to a point.

So here’s the hypocrisy. The governments can afford for that vulnerability to go only so far. It would be a fiscal disaster if the tobacco companies packed up and chugged off out of town because that would be the end of the lucrative tax grab. It would not be the end of ailing smokers who seem to be able to access Quebec’s illegal stash in alarming numbers.

If the government cares so much for its inhaling and unhealthy citizens it would damn well ban the product outright. Instead it has exposed itself as being just as addicted as they are to the peddlers of nicotine, and is just as incapable of a cold turkey solution even though it knows doing otherwise contributes to a burdensome health budget.

Trying to smoke out the cash from the goose that lays a rather large golden tax egg will not do one thing to stop more Quebeckers dying of lung cancer. Yes, it is a good message to see big tobacco challenged. However doing it this way will leave the government stinking of hypocrisy, and, rather more embarrassing, lying face down in a large ashtray that is legal, regulated, and arguably no more evil than the facilitators of alcoholics, coronary victims and compulsive gamblers.