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Jen Grond/the Gauntlet

Health-care costs spark government action

Ontario sues tobacco giants over the high price of smoking

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Go ahead, punch yourself in the teeth. Sure it doesn't sound like a great plan, but this guy here is your friend, and if he says you should punch yourself in the teeth, then it can't be all bad. Right? Despite the nagging suspicion that punching your own teeth out is probably a bad plan, you raise your fist anyway and drive it home. After recovering from the initial shock, followed by some cursing, you pick up the teeth scattered around the sidewalk, and head on down to the dentist. The dentist does his thing, and after fitting you with a nice set of falsies, hands you the bill. This would be the point when you start yelling at your friend, demanding they pay the damages. Clearly it is their fault your own fist was directed towards your jaw.

The province of Ontario seems to be following this model. The Ontario government is currently suing big tobacco for 50 years of medical expenses. The province, which has spent the last 50 years taxing the hell out of cigarettes, has now turned around and is suing several tobacco companies for the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses. Smoking-related illnesses cost the health care system heavily, filling hospital beds and incurring billions of dollars worth of expenses. Ontario is not the first province to launch such a suit; both British Columbia and New Brunswick filed similar suits several years ago. Ontario hopes to get $50 billion out of the tobacco industry, to recoup smoking-related health costs from 1955 to 2009.

True, the tobacco industry has a very negative weight on the health care system. It has been argued that it is unfair to use taxpayer money to clean up the aftermath of tobacco use. These are sound arguments, save for one thing. What isn't being taken into account is the fact that the government has been taxing the hell out of cigarettes and other tobacco products for essentially as long as they have been around. The province of Ontario sees over a billion dollars in taxes from the tobacco industry each year. Taking these numbers into consideration, it would seem an important piggy bank for the province. As vile an industry as it may be, the government has allowed it to run rampant for many years. They can't possibly expect to get this sort of money out of an industry they have suckled off for so long.

The suit has been filed against several major tobacco companies, including Altria Group, and some of its Philip Morris subsidiaries, British American Tobacco of London and its Canadian unit Imperial Tobacco, as well as R. J. Reynolds and JTI-Macdonald.

The case is expected to drag on for years, similar to the British Columbian case which is still ongoing, after eight years. Add millions of dollars in legal fees to the already staggering billions in health care fees and you've got yourself a tasty knuckle sandwich. Perhaps Ontario would do better to accept a little responsibility here. It's hard to blame someone else when it's your own knuckles causing the damage.

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