Nunavut prepares for 'long and complicated' fight against Big Tobacco

The territory with Canada's highest smoking rate is looking for a law firm to represent it in its case for health-care costs associated with tobacco use, and hopes the delay in filing the suit will give it a strategic advantage.

Territory with Canada's highest smoking rate looks to sue for health-care costs

Nunavut is moving forward on plans to launch a lawsuit against tobacco companies. (CBC)

Nunavut, the territory with Canada's highest smoking rate, is looking for a law firm to represent it in its case against tobacco companies and is hoping the delay in filing the suit will give it a strategic advantage.

It's been five years since Nunavut Justice Minister Keith Peterson first pledged to sue for the cost of health care associated with smoking. 

But since then, nothing has been done. 

Every province in Canada has already filed a similar claim, but none has so far made it to trial. 

"Being late to the game in that respect gives us an advantage because we can learn from what those other jurisdictions have done and possibly be a little more successful in our lawsuit," said Bill MacKay, the territory's deputy justice minister. 
Bill MacKay, Nunavut's deputy justice minister, says launching a lawsuit is a priority. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

Nunavut has put out a call for proposals "seeking experienced and qualified legal counsel" from a law firm of any size.

Health-care costs expected to balloon

The majority of adults in Nunavut smoke.

The territory's latest statistics show 62 per cent of residents reported being a current smoker, compared with 18.1 per cent nationally. Some communities in Nunavut have an even higher smoking rate — up to 84 per cent.

Tobacco sales in the territory also continue to increase. With a population of less than 40,000 people, Nunavummiut purchased 56.2 million cigarettes last year. 

"The prevalence is sky high in Nunavut," said François Damphousse, the Quebec director of the Non-Smokers' Rights Association. 

"It would be even more justified for the Nunavut government to file a lawsuit against these manufacturers."

With less access to specialized medical treatment in the territory, MacKay said the cost of treating people for illnesses related to tobacco use is high. 

As the territory's young population begins to age, Mackay said costs "will balloon in the next few years."

Seeks provincial partners

British Columbia was the first province to file a suit against tobacco manufacturers, but in 17 years there is still no word on when the case will go to trial. 

"The tobacco industry has done everything it can to delay that by bringing in motion after motion," said Damphousse.

Winners of a $15-billion class action lawsuit in Quebec know that well. Three companies — Imperial Tobacco, JTI-Macdonald and Rothmans-Benson & Hedges — began arguing an appeal of the 2015 ruling this week. 

"The tobacco industry is very aggressive," said Damphousse. "Obviously, they know that they could lose big. They hire the best lawyers, so you have to be prepared to defend yourself very well."

MacKay said Nunavut has been tracking the progress of these lawsuits.

François Damphousse, from the Non-Smokers' Rights Association, suggests teaming up with some provinces could be a good legal strategy for Nunavut. (François Damphousse)

Several provinces are pooling resources, using the same lawyers to fight their respective legal battles. 

While the territory is open to any lawyers at this point, MacKay said it would be interested in joining forces with other jurisdictions. 

With fewer resources than the provinces, Nunavut is hoping to keep its legal bills in check by hiring lawyers on contingency.

MacKay said the lawyers will only be paid if and when the territory wins its case.

"We expect that the process will be long and complicated, but we know that with the right legal counsel we'll be able to handle that lawsuit," he said. 
Nunavut spends a lot of money on treating ailments caused by smoking, as well as on anti-smoking campaigns. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

As soon as a legal team is selected, its first order of business will be researching "historical tobacco use and historical health-care costs related with tobacco use."

MacKay said launching a suit against tobacco companies is a government priority and "this is the first step."

No suits announced in other territories

The effect of these lawsuits on the viability of tobacco companies could be huge, said Damphousse, especially since legal frameworks passed by provinces and territories — like Nunavut's Tobacco Damages and Health Care Costs Recovery Act — give jurisdictions the power to sue parent companies that are based outside of Canada. 

"In Quebec, the lawsuit from the provincial government is in the amount of $60 billion. In Ontario it's $50 billion," he said.

"If you include all the provinces, it's a huge amount of money. Even the parent companies are going to have a hard time paying that."

So far, Nunavut is the only territory to announce its intention to file a claim for health-care costs tied to smoking. 

In 2011, the Northwest Territories adopted its own Tobacco Damages Health Care Cost Recovery Act, which makes a lawsuit possible. 

Meanwhile, Yukon has been reluctant to take that step citing its small size as a deterrent