Supreme Court rules B.C. doesn't have to disclose health records to cigarette maker

British Columbia does not have to hand over the detailed health-care records of millions of people to tobacco company Philip Morris International, says Canada's top court.

Friday morning's unanimous Supreme Court decision clears a hurdle in the province's quest to sue cigarette companies for billions in health-care costs.

Writing for the court, Justice Russell Brown found the health care databases Philip Morris wanted contained information about individuals whose privacy the province is obligated to protect.

The ruling is the latest chapter in B.C.'s legal fight to force cigarette makers like Philip Morris International to compensate the province for the cost of treating tobacco-related illnesses — a battle that started in the late 1990s.

Philip Morris International argued it needs access to individuals' health data to defend itself in court.

The province's lawyers argued that releasing individuals' health information — even anonymously — could violate privacy laws.

B.C. pointed to a provision in its Tobacco Damages and Health Care Costs Recovery Act that specifically covers privacy.

Last year, the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld a lower court's decision that agreed with the company, and ruled that to ensure a fair trial, the province needed to hand over the patient data.

The Supreme Court disagreed.

Documents can't be shared, ruling says

Brown wrote that the lower courts focused on the relevance of the databases rather than the content of the information. He said documents related to individual health-care benefits cannot be shared, even if identifying information is removed.

British Columbia did offer tobacco companies access to Statistics Canada data, under strict controls, but Philip Morris refused. 

Brown said Philip Morris could ask for a "statistically meaningful sample."

Rothmans Benson & Hedges (RBH), Philip Morris International's affiliate in Canada doesn't see it as a total loss.

"Although the Supreme Court disagreed with the B.C. courts that the anonymized databases should be produced now, the Supreme Court acknowledged that RBH and the other defendants are still entitled to production of the databases if any of B.C.'s expert witnesses rely on them, and to apply for production of a statistically meaningful sample of the databases and other documents," wrote spokesperson Sarah Tratt in an email.

B.C. was the first province to start the litigation process, but every other province has since launched similar cost-recovery cases against the tobacco industry.

Collectively, they're seeking about $ 120 billion.

Rob Cunningham, a lawyer with the Canadian Cancer Society, said today's decision is an important preliminary defeat, which could impact the other provinces' cases as well.

"The objective of the tobacco industry is to delay the start of this trial. They don't want to have to pay tens of billions of dollars in damages," he said.

"It is really important that provinces move aggressively to bring their cases to trial. It has taken too long."

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CBC | Health News