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Roxon sizes up lawsuit against Big Tobacco companies

INCOMING Attorney-General Nicola Roxon is looking to spearhead legal action against Big Tobacco to help the states recover the estimated $31.5 billion that smoking-related disease costs the hospital system each year.

With the former health minister already preparing for a High Court battle with tobacco companies over plain packaging legislation, Ms Roxon said yesterday she would approach state governments to “consider whether there are options” for a separate legal challenge, with the possibility of individual suits or a class action by states a real possibility.

“We are looking at options for what is an appropriate way to reduce levels of smoking in Australia and we can look at whether the tobacco companies are appropriately being held to account,” Ms Roxon said.

The minister said the government “had been taking legal advice, and will be taking legal advice” on the possibility of a lawsuit, but would not specify a timeline for any action. “I don’t think this is the sort of thing that you need to make a decision about in a hasty way,” Ms Roxon said.

“I would welcome individual states considering the issue of whether they might take some action. They, of course, do bear a lot of the health costs caused by tobacco-related disease.”

Yesterday, she met US lawyer and anti-smoking lobbyist Matthew Myers, who advised 50 US state attorneys-general in lawsuits against Big Tobacco for smoking-related healthcare costs in the late 1990s. The outcome of what was called the Master Settlement was a $US246bn payout over a 25-year period to the 50 US states involved in the action.

On Monday, Mr Myers met Victorian Health Minister David Davis, who told The Australian the Victorian Health Department was now assessing the applicability of the legal arguments used in the US matter for the Australian system.

Mr Myers, who has also advised Canadian provinces in legal action, met NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant yesterday and will meet the South Australian Health Minister and Acting Attorney-General John Hill today.

In his discussions with the incoming Attorney-General, Mr Myers said Ms Roxon “asked a lot of probing questions on the issue” and their talks “would begin the conversation” about an Australian lawsuit against Big Tobacco. “Minister Roxon asked me to raise these issues to begin to generate a conversation both with her and a number of state officials,” Mr Myers said.

“The governments of Victoria or NSW did not decide to smoke or not, but it’s obligated to pay medical costs of its citizens under certain circumstances. And that was a core legal theory that underpinned the cases in America, and is currently underpinning a series of cases in Canada.”

Mr Myers said while there were differences between the Australian and US legal systems, he believed common-law principles would aid the possibility of successful legal action in Australia.

“What we talked about were the legal principles that underpinned them, that frankly apply to all common-law nations around the world . . . some core principles about the right of government to recover when another party engages in fraud, deceptive behaviour or illegally fails to make their product as safe as they can make it.”


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