Health authorities plan legal action against tobacco companies

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 28 June 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:1849
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

    Health authorities in Britain are considering legal action against tobacco companies to recover the costs of treating patients with smoking related illnesses.

    Authorities in the South Thames region are discussing pooling funds to mount a test case in the British courts in the wake of the US tobacco industry's huge settlement with 40 states.

    The topic was a last minute special addition to the agenda for the NHS Confederation's conference in Brighton this week. Adrienne Fresko, chairwoman of Croydon Health Authority in south London, which has initiated the discussions, said that the authorities would be taking legal advice and considering the possible costs very carefully. “We're quite prepared to take the first steps to see whether or not it would be possible for us to litigate.”

    Two companies in the United Kingdom, Imperial Tobacco and Gallaher, are currently being sued on behalf of 47 smokers who contracted lung cancer. A judge is expected to be appointed on 1 July to oversee the litigation, which is likely to come to trial around the end of 1998.

    The claim is being financed on a “no win, no fee” basis by a single firm of solicitors, Leigh, Day and Co. The legal aid board, which funded the initial investigation of the case, withdrew backing after taking advice from an independent Queen's counsel.

    Health authorities will not be able to bring negligence actions because of the legal rule that compensation cannot be claimed in negligence for pure economic loss, without damage to person or property.

    The likely course of action is a claim for conspiracy to injure, but this would require proof that the tobacco companies got together to suppress information about the harm done by their products.

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