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Activists say public health is a key in provincial anti-tobacco suits

A person smokes in downtown Ottawa on Sept. 29, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Pawel Dwulit

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A person smokes in downtown Ottawa on Sept. 29, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Pawel Dwulit

OTTAWA - Garfield Mahood, for decades a painful thorn in the side of Big Tobacco, is back with a new campaign urging the provinces to put new emphasis on public health in their legal battles against the tobacco industry.

Mahood's Campaign for Justice on Tobacco Fraud has sent a letter to provincial attorneys general and health ministers, saying the anti-tobacco campaign should be about more than money.

Nine provinces have filed suits against tobacco manufacturers seeking billions of dollars in health costs due to smoking.

The suits have dragged out for years, in part because the tobacco companies can afford to raise "a wall of flesh" in the form of private lawyers willing to file motions and fight to the Supreme Court of Canada over and over.

Mahood said he has no problem with the slow pace, saying the provinces have shown persistence in their fight with the tobacco industry.

"The province of British Columbia has been to the Supreme Court two or three times and they've won every time," he said.

What the campaign wants is a new emphasis in the fight.

"These lawsuits should be about much more than money," said Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society.

"We applaud these lawsuits, but want the attorneys general and health ministers involved to put justice and public health at the top of their lists of desired outcomes for their litigation."

Mahood said part of any eventual settlement should be used to finance a public heath trust to operate at arm's length from governments. He said an independent body like that can undertake the tough anti-smoking and public health campaigns that politicians might shy away from.

He also wants the legal actions to force disclosure of tobacco industry documents.

If people see for themselves evidence of what he calls "industry misbehaviour," they are more likely to quit smoking, he said.

The campaign's open letter is signed by more than 130 experts, including doctors, lawyers, professors and heads of major public health agencies.

In 1976, Mahood became the founding executive director of the Non-Smokers Rights Association, which led the fight for smoking bans across the country.

The legal battle against big tobacco is the next challenge, he said.

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