Liability: The Facts

18 Aug 2008

Legal actions taken by private parties or by states against manufacturers of tobacco products have significant potential to reduce the extensive harm to public health caused by tobacco products. The potential positive results of legal action including product liability, medical cost recovery, or rights-based litigation include:

  • Compelling tobacco manufacturers to raise prices to cover their actual or anticipated liabilities. Higher costs lower tobacco consumption—especially among children and teenagers, who are more price-sensitive than adults.
  • Deterring dishonest practices that increase the risk of liability. Deterrence of ‘intentional torts’ is a main goal of the civil justice system.
  • Educating the public about the risks of tobacco use, particularly the strong causal link between tobacco use and disease, since lawsuits attract extensive, free media coverage.
  • Compensating injured parties, including injured smokers and non-smokers, their families, and health care systems.
  • Delegitimizing the industry by exposing patterns of reprehensible conduct. For example, many U.S. politicians discontinued taking tobacco company campaign contributions in the late 1990s, largely because the discovery process in pending lawsuits revealed stunning industry misconduct. Loss of political esteem or loyalty can facilitate the passage of effective comprehensive tobacco control legislation.
  • Preventing abhorrent advertising or marketing campaigns by compelling enforcement of existing legal restrictions or under rights-based theories.
  • Enlisting a new team of skilled and resourceful advocates on the side of reducing tobacco use.

While not greatly utilized to date, criminal liability may provide an even more powerful incentive for discontinuing illegal practices that contribute to tobacco’s public health toll.

In addition, legal actions taken against employers and occupiers of public venues over the harms caused by secondhand smoke have played a critical role in many countries in stimulating legislative and policy changes to create smoke-free workplaces and public places.

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