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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2730

Brazil Files Historic Lawsuit to Hold Global Tobacco Companies Responsible for Health Harms

By Manjari Peiris from Sri Lanka

In historic action to protect the lives and health of Brazilians, Brazil’s Office of the Attorney General (Advocacia-Geral da União) filed a lawsuit against multinational tobacco companies to recover funds spent on the treatment of tobacco-related diseases in Brazil’s health care system. The suit is the first of its kind for Brazil and a significant step towards holding the two major tobacco companies who do business in Brazil and their parent companies responsible for the enormous financial and health burdens caused by tobacco use.

Brazil’s lawsuit seeks to recover funds from the companies responsible for Brazil’s tobacco epidemic – British American Tobacco and Philip Morris International, along with their Brazilian subsidiaries. These are costs that the Brazilian government is legally bound to pay for because health is a constitutional right in Brazil.

Despite the advancements in tobacco control policies in Brazil, tobacco remains the country’s leading cause of preventable death. It isn’t an accident – it has been and continues to be caused by the wrongful behavior of British American Tobacco and Philip Morris International and their Brazilian subsidiaries that use deceptive marketing tactics to target youth and sell cigarettes, despite scientific consensus that tobacco products are addictive and deadly. The industry’s tactics are similar in countries spanning the globe. They include large advertisements, promotions for cheap and even free tobacco products, and high-visibility product placements by stores, street vendors, kiosks and other retailers surrounding schools. Tobacco products, advertisements and branding are often visible from inside schools or right outside school entrances, making it impossible for kids to avoid them.

“The consistent presence of Philip Morris and British American Tobacco brands prominently displayed and sold next to elementary schools, in country after country, cannot be a coincidence. This is clear evidence that these giant tobacco companies are targeting young children near their schools, often in poor countries where laws are weak and the companies think they can get away with this despicable behavior,” said Matthew L. Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “These companies’ actions show why they can’t be taken seriously when they claim to be responsible entities that are helping to solve the tobacco problem. The targeting of kids near schools leaves no doubt that they’re the main cause of the problem, not the solution.”

Each year over 1.1 million Brazilians become sick due to causes attributable to smoking including heart disease, pneumonia, stroke and cancers.

This lawsuit marks a crucial step forward in holding tobacco companies responsible for their decades of deceitful advertising and marketing practices that hid the dangers of smoking from the public and purposely targeted young people. British American Tobacco and Philip Morris International have received and continue to receive massive profits from sales to Brazilians even while the government and citizens of Brazil are forced to pay billions each year for the medical treatment of its citizens suffering from smoking-induced diseases.

This case – the first one of this kind in Latin America – follows similar legal actions taken in the United States and Canada. In the United States, a landmark 1998 legal settlement between states and the tobacco companies required the companies to make payments in perpetuity to the states as compensation for tobacco-related health care costs, restricted some forms of tobacco marketing and provided funding for a national public education campaign to prevent youth tobacco use. The payments made to date have totaled more than US $162 billion. That same year, the first Canadian province sued the tobacco companies to recover its health care costs related to tobacco harms. Since then, every province and territory in Canada except one has filed similar litigation, with health care recovery claims now reportedly exceeding US $89 billion.

The industry is arguing that tobacco is a legal product, that smokers knew the risks and that it should not be responsible for health costs.

Governments (and individuals in the class actions) have argued that the tobacco manufacturers systematically lied about the risks of tobacco, misled consumers and blocked tobacco-control measures so they should be held responsible for much of the suffering of smokers.

That the industry continues to operate and thrive despite these damning allegations and massive financial settlements that have followed is a testament to its profitability, shamelessness and tenacity.

Provincial governments should be equally tenacious in seeking justice for smokers (and taxpayers).

Every few years, a ruling comes along to remind us about the high-stakes battle being waged between government and Big Tobacco.

But there is really no excuse for these cases to drag on for so long – not in a country where tobacco use still kills 45,000 Canadians a year, and where tobacco-related health costs exceed $6.5-billion annually.

With the lawsuit announced on 21st May, Brazil’s Office of the Attorney General is courageously standing up to multinational tobacco companies and seeking just compensation the Brazilian people deserve. With this action the Brazilian government is also acting in accordance with both Brazil’s constitution and its international obligations as a party to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – the international tobacco control treaty.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids applauds the government of Brazil and the Office of the Attorney General for their leadership and vision in bringing this lawsuit. The Brazilian judiciary should move this case forward rapidly in order to address an injustice that for too long has seen the economic profit of a few multinational tobacco companies prevail over the health and economic wellbeing of the citizens of Brazil.

Source of information: Matthew L. Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Washington DC.

- Asian Tribune -

 Brazil Files Historic Lawsuit to Hold Global Tobacco Companies Responsible for Health Harms
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