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Tobacco - the UK smoking gun

The tobacco industry has been unchallenged for far too long in the UK and Ireland, says Paul Tweed who is on a mission to change this.

Tobacco industry is coming under fire Rovenko Photo

In my role as an international lawyer I try not to get involved in politics. Indeed, in representing many leading politicians from all sides of the political divide, I have found that it is always wise to err on the side of political neutrality.However, last week when Ed Milliband pledged to raise £2.5bn from increased taxes to be paid by Tobacco Companies my ears pricked up.

I have to admit I thought it a brilliant idea – but had he gone far enough? £2.5bn would certainly be a helpful boost for the NHS’s rapidly depleting coffers, but it hardly covers the estimated £5.2bn costs of treating smoking related illnesses each year. Americans have sued – successfully – with $206bn recovered in damages on behalf of 13 US States - so far. The latest cost figures are from research carried out by Oxford University estimated that smoking cost the NHS in the UK £5.2bn in 2005/06 approximately 5.5 per cent of total healthcare costs. This updates the estimated cost of between £1.4bn and £1.5bn a year, estimated by research carried out by the Centre for Health Economics at the University of York in 1998.

And these are only the costs of treating smoking-related illnesses and don’t include costs related to working days lost or social security or ill health payments, nor do they include any costs related to the effects of second-hand smoking.  Against these jaw dropping financial statistics, £2.5bn is a drop in the ocean when considering the overall financial exposure on the part of the NHS.

My transatlantic work brought to my attention the groundbreaking achievement of leading US attorney, Steve Berman, in helping to expose the fact that Big Tobacco Companies had known of the health dangers from their cigarettes many decades ago.  Against this background, the first round of US legal action has so far resulted in settlements of $206bn, which looks like the tip of a very large iceberg heading Big Tobacco’s way. 

I have now teamed up with the indomitable Mr Berman and we will be lobbying the UK and Irish Governments to take legal action against the very tobacco companies which have cost the NHS the estimated £5.2bn worth of resources every year. We all now know cigarettes are bad for you – and so it seems – have their manufacturers for some time! 

Canada of course has already taken the lead in a legal action in Quebec which has spanned sixteen years, but with the $17.8bn lawsuit now coming to a conclusion. This likely to have significant repercussions for the Commonwealth and the World.

Such potential multi-billion pound litigation could go some considerable way towards compensating the NHS for the damage inflicted by the extensive fall-out from tobacco products.  Recently, Ireland’s former Health Minister James Reilly defiantly challenged Big Tobacco, who had threatened to sue Ireland and its taxpayers for billions of euro over the plans he had to introduce plain packaging for all cigarettes. 

Will the British government have the same courage to defy and take on these corporations?

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10 October 2014

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