Anti-smoking group has mixed feelings about Big Tobacco fines

A prominent anti-tobacco group says it's simultaneously pleased and disappointed by the huge fines levied against two of Canada's largest tobacco companies.

A prominent anti-tobacco group says it's simultaneously pleased and disappointed by the huge fines levied against two of Canada's largest tobacco companies.

Imperial Tobacco and Rothmans Benson & Hedges admitted on Thursday their involvement in cigarette smuggling schemes during the late 1980s and early 1990s and agreed to fork over as much as $1.15 billion in fines and civil payments in connection with aiding contraband tobacco sales.

Imperial Tobacco was issued a $200-million fine and will pay up to an additional $400 million over the next 15 years, while Rothmans Benson & Hedges was fined $100 million and will pay up to $450 million more in civil payments over the next 10 years.

While the Non-Smokers' Rights Association, a non-profit health organization headquartered in Toronto, is pleased with the fines, the anti-tobacco group is disappointed no charges will be laid against company executives.

"If you or I had any intention of defrauding the government of a couple of million dollars, we'd be thrown in jail," said François Damphousse, the organization's Quebec director.

"Why aren't the executives facing such charges for having defrauded the government of billions of dollars?" 

Damphousse also noted the fines don't come close to making up for what the government lost in tax revenue at the height of the smuggling operation. His group has fought hard to keep taxes on cigarettes high

Joseph Erban, who runs smoking-cessation support groups at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital, recalled that 20 years ago, massive amounts of cigarettes were being smuggled into Canada from the United States.

"Cigarettes were readily available," Erban said. "You didn't have to go very far to get an illegal carton of cigarettes for half the cost of what they would be selling at the retail level."

Expensive cigarettes deter people from smoking, Erban said. He said the cheap, black-market smokes bootlegged in from the U.S. made it difficult for many people to quit.