Mohawks prepared for legal war with Big Tobacco over multi-billion dollar lawsuit

Big Tobacco has launched lawsuit against several First Nations tobacco manufacturers and retailers claiming they should also be on the financial hook if Ontario wins its $50 billion lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News

Big Tobacco has launched a multi-billion dollar lawsuit against several First Nations tobacco manufacturers and retailers claiming they should also be on the financial hook if Ontario wins its $50 billion court case against the tobacco industry.

Tobacco giants Imperial Tobacco Canada, Philip Morris, Altria Group, Rothmans and Benson & Hedges each launched third-party claims last month against First Nations tobacco manufacturers in Kahnawake, Que., Six Nations, Ont., Akwesasne, NY, Tyendinaga, Ont., Odanak, Que., New Credit, Ont., and Mashteuiatsh, Que.

The claims target licensed and unlicensed First Nations tobacco manufacturers and retailers.

The third-party claims were filed in connection with Ontario’s ongoing $50 billion lawsuit against Big Tobacco to recoup health-care costs associated with treating tobacco-related illnesses.

The tobacco firms claim that if the court rules they owe Ontario billions of dollars in health care costs, First Nations tobacco companies should also be forced to pay the same amount.

“If the plaintiff incurred the cost of health care benefits as alleged….some or all of those costs were caused or contributed to by the third parties,” according to the tobacco firms’ statements of claim.

While the claims make no mention of specific dollar amounts the companies believe First Nations tobacco manufacturers and retailers should be held liable for, the total amount could reach into the billions of dollars.

The companies claim “any amount” major tobacco companies are “found liable to the plaintiff (Ontario).”

Imperial Tobacco is also claiming $1.5 billion in damages from First Nations tobacco manufacturers and retailers for allegedly producing and selling products that resemble Imperial products.

The tobacco firm takes specific aim at “contraband tobacco manufactures.” It lists Jacobs Tobacco Company, from Akwesasne, Rice Mohawk Industries, from Kahnawake, Tyendinaga Mohawk Tobacco Products (TMT) and Nancy’s Smoke Shack on the New Credit reserve in Ontario, as belonging to that group.

Imperial claims they are illegally undercutting Imperial’s sales by “circumventing” provincial and federal laws to sell cheap cigarettes.

“The conduct of the contraband tobacco manufactures constitutes an unlawful interference with (Imperial Tobacco’s) economic relations,” says the firm’s statement of claim. “Their unlawful conduct is specifically directed at (Imperial Tobacco)….Contraband tobacco manufacturers operate unlawfully with the view to maximizing their share of the tobacco market while concurrently reducing (Imperial’s) own market-share.”

One of the people served with the lawsuit was Tyendinaga Mohawk Shawn Brant, who is part of Tyendinaga Mohawk Tobacco Products. Brant, who runs a smoke shack in Tyendinaga, said TMT operates as an umbrella “collective” for the Tyendinaga territory’s cigarette manufacturers and retailers.

Brant said “the community” will be fighting the lawsuit in court.

“Imperial will understand our position when this response is put forward,” said Brant. “They’ve served me and we’ll respond as a community.”

Brant said the lawsuit won’t stop Tyendinaga’s tobacco trade, which he said has provided one of the few avenues out of poverty for many.

“We are not going to go back to the stone-ages and (crapping) in pails. We are going to develop our economy,” said Brant. “If they want to fight on the highways, we’ll fight on the highways. If they take it to court we’ll meet them there…First Nations people have stepped forward to compete in a resource that is ancestrally ours.”

Robbie Dickson, president of Rainbow Tobacco, a Kahnawake-based cigarette maker that is also named in the claims, said the first step in fighting the lawsuit is to have it quashed.

“It is another effort of theirs to put us out of business,” said Dickson. “They want to lock us up in court and have us spend all our money on lawyer fees.”

Rainbow is already fighting the Alberta government in court over charges stemming from the seizure of millions of cigarettes from the Montana First Nation reserve.

Rainbow, which is federally licensed, also has had cigarettes seized in Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

Dickson said all the named tobacco companies and retailers in the lawsuits have to band together to fight Big Tobacco.

“I want us all to come together as a group,” he said.

Online Producer / Ottawa

Before moving to become the APTN News social media producer, Mark was the executive producer for the news in eastern Canada. Before starting with APTN in 2009, Mark worked at CBC Radio and Television in Newfoundland and Labrador and Ottawa.

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