Last updated: November 2011
Suggested citation: Liberman, J. 16.2 Litigation brought by Australian consumer and regulatory groups against the tobacco industry. In Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2018. Available from: http://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-16-litigation/16-2-litigation-brought-by-australian-consumer-and-regulatory-groups-against-the-tobacco-industry
The previous section discussed claims seeking damages for personal injury, many of which involved allegations that the tobacco industry engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct. Misleading and deceptive conduct is prohibited under trade practices and fair-trading legislation. The prohibition can be used as a trigger for damages, or invoked to obtain court orders that certain actions were misleading and deceptive, and to order that no similar conduct occur again in the future or that a defendant undertake corrective action.
The process of obtaining such orders can be difficult and involved, though not ordinarily as difficult and involved as cases where damages are sought. There are two important examples of this process in Australia. One is a dispute in relation to the tobacco industry's adoption of 'light' and 'mild' cigarettes, which did not ultimately involve litigation, but resulted in a court-enforceable settlement between the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the three major Australian tobacco manufacturers. The other is a claim brought by the Australian Federation of Consumer Organisations against the Tobacco Institute of Australia in the late 1980s and heard in the early 1990s for misleading and deceptive conduct in advertisements about second-hand smoke.
In 2005, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) accepted court-enforceable undertakings from the three major Australian tobacco manufacturers, Philip Morris (Australia) Limited, British American Tobacco Limited and Imperial Tobacco Australia Limited, under which the companies agreed to stop using terms such as 'light' and 'mild' and to provide a total of $9 million for corrective advertising to be run by the ACCC. Philip Morris also agreed to stop using machine-tested cigarette yield information other than when used in a brand name. Neither BAT nor Imperial agreed to stop using machine-tested yield information derived from ISO (International Standards Organisation) testing procedures. The undertakings were given in exchange for an assurance that the ACCC would not take legal action against the companies under the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Cth) over the use of the terms. The undertakings can be viewed at:
http://www.accc.gov.au/content/index.phtml/itemId/683563 (Philip Morris) and
Complaints that the use of the terms was misleading and deceptive were first made to the ACCC in 2001. After investigating the complaints, the ACCC reached the conclusion that the companies had contravened the Trade Practices Act by marketing 'light' and 'mild' and similarly named products, and other products without these descriptors but with ISO machine-tested deliveries of 8mg or less, as less harmful to health than other cigarettes. The ACCC's conclusions are set out in the formal undertakings documents (see links above). The ACCC had been provided with evidence that approximately 55% of Australian smokers believed that light cigarettes (covering light, mild or low in tar) offered some health benefit compared to regular cigarettes1 and that 77.5% of Victorian regular smokers (likely to be similar across Australia) smoked cigarettes labelled either 'light' or 'mild'.2
The agreement between the ACCC and the tobacco companies contained no element of liability for the harm done by the companies' conduct. The ACCC does not have power to impose penalties upon, or make compensation orders against, those it considers to have breached the Trade Practices Act. Rather, its power is to institute court proceedings, with only a court ultimately able to make such orders. Here the ACCC decided to settle the matter with the companies, rather than take them to court to seek penalties or damages.
In making this decision, the ACCC was clearly influenced by its recognition of how protracted and expensive court proceedings against the tobacco industry were likely to be. In January 2004, the Chairman of the ACCC, Graeme Samuel, when asked about the Commission's investigation into the industry's behaviour, told The Age newspaper:
'A case like this is resource-intensive because of the nature of the evidence that is being brought … we would be fighting powerful companies with enormous resources and we have to consider that. … If we take on a case like this we have to have the evidence and we have to have the resources … On one analysis this could exhaust all our resources in one go.'
In August that year, Mr Samuel gave evidence to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee which was inquiring into what the ACCC planned to do with respect to the complaints that had been made against the industry. Mr Samuel said:
'[I] t is very substantial litigation. For obvious reasons, it would be defended vigorously. Then we are talking about an extensive gathering of evidence, including scientific evidence, expert witnesses, a lengthy case, lengthy appeals and the whole question of the resources of the ACCC to deal with that. … [I] f we were to institute proceedings of this nature, it would require a substantial vote of our litigation budget towards these particular proceedings. That would then impact significantly on the ability of the commission to deal with other enforcement activities that are within the scope of its jurisdiction.' The transcript of the hearing before the Senate Committee can be viewed at http://www.aph.gov.au/hansard/senate/commttee/S7866.pdf
The ACCC's corrective advertising campaign ran in December 2005 and January 2006 and again in June 2006. It included advertisements on television, radio, internet and online, in newspapers and magazines, and outdoor (at the cricket and on buses and trams).
After agreeing not to use terms such as 'light' and 'mild' any more, the companies began using terms such as 'rich', 'classic', 'smooth', 'fine', 'ultimate', 'refined' and 'chilled'.
The tobacco industry is politically active in Australia as it is throughout the world. In 1978 the Tobacco Institute of Australia (TIA) was formed. It ceased operations in 19973 —see Chapter 10, Section 10.20.6.1. Its aims included:4
In the 1980s, the TIA commissioned a series of advertisements about the effects of smoking. One advertisement was the subject of a claim that it amounted to misleading or deceptive conduct. The claim was brought by the Australian Federation of Consumer Organisations (AFCO). The advertisement featured in the major daily newspapers of Sydney and Melbourne in 1986 and took place in the context of public debate about whether secondhand smoke caused disease. The advertisement stated 'there is little evidence and nothing which proves scientifically that cigarette smoke causes disease in non-smokers'. AFCO applied to the Federal Court seeking an injunction against further such statements.
The trial judge, Justice Morling, found that there was compelling scientific evidence that cigarette smoke causes lung cancer in non-smokers.5 The statement made in the advertisement was erroneous when published and remained so at the time of judgement.6 His Honour made the same findings in respect of cigarette smoke and respiratory disease in infants under 12 months of age,7 as well as cigarette smoking and asthma8 (his Honour did not distinguish between the general disease of asthma and its manifestation in an asthmatic attack).9 His Honour declined to make such a finding in respect of otitis media.
On the basis of these findings, Justice Morling held that the TIA had breached the Trade Practices Act, and ordered an injunction preventing the further publication of the statement in the future. The TIA appealed.
The Full Court of the Federal Court upheld Justice Morling's findings that the TIA had breached the Trade Practices Act, though each of the three judges took a different interpretation of what needed to be proved in order to find the advertisement misleading or deceptive.10 The Full Court nevertheless quashed the injunction granted by Justice Morling. The Court held that an indefinite injunction was inappropriate because of the possibility, however slight, that further scientific evidence might be created at a stage in the future, which cast doubt on the link between cigarette smoking and disease. If this occurred, the restraint would operate to prevent the TIA engaging in full and free discussion about the matter.
Cauvin v Philip Morris, British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco
Tobacco Control Coalition Inc v Philip Morris, WD & HO Wills and Rothmans
As should now be clear, tobacco litigation requires pleadings that survive rigorous challenges by the tobacco industry. This in turn requires rigorous investigation of relevant facts before the statement of claim is filed, because plaintiffs cannot expect to use the discovery process to fill gaps in their factual understanding. The investigation and drafting process is likely to be very expensive, as is the court hearing itself. One possible source of funding might be litigation funders, who finance a plaintiff’s claim in return for a share in the damages that are awarded if the claim is successful.
Litigation funding is a relatively new process in Australia, and has only relatively recently been considered by the High Court. The consideration occurred in the case of Campbells Cash and Carry v Fostif.11
The circumstances surrounding the consideration involved tobacco retailers seeking compensation from tobacco wholesalers for non-return of payments they had made relating to excise taxes that were subsequently declared invalid by the High Court. After the decision in Roxborough v Rothmans of Pall Mall Australia,12 which held that retailers were entitled to reimbursement, tobacco wholesalers settled claims made by large retailers. However, claims made by small tobacco retailers were vigorously opposed. The average amount owed to each small retailer was approximately $1000. In such circumstances, the benefits of pursuing a claim were insufficient to outweigh the potential costs. A company called Firmstones wrote to tobacco retailers asking for authority to act on their behalf in recovering the amounts owed. In return for one third of any money received by the retailers, Firmstones would fund and direct the litigation.
The High Court was asked to decide whether, because the funding came from litigation funders, the proceedings were contrary to public policy.13 The High Court held that litigation funding was not clearly contrary to public policy, and that it was to be welcomed as a means by which access to the courts could be facilitated.14
Litigation funding has become an increasingly important way of facilitating litigation that would otherwise not be brought because of its cost. However, a recent decision by the Full Federal Court found that class action funding and retainer arrangements may constitute a managed investment scheme and require registration pursuant to section 601ED of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth).15 The effect of this decision on the availability of litigation funding is not yet known.
 R Borland, H Yong, B King, KM Cummings, GT Fong, T Elton-Marshall, D Hammond, A McNeill, 'Use of beliefs about light cigarettes in four countries: Findings from the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Survey' Nicotine & Tobacco Research Vol 6, Suppl 3 (December 2004).