16.4 Criminal cases against the tobacco industry

Last updated: January 2020 

Suggested citation: Greenhalgh, EM. 16.4 Criminal cases against the tobacco industry. In Greenhalgh, EM, Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2020. Available from http://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-16-litigation/16-4-criminal-cases-against-the-tobacco-industry


Although the tobacco industry has repeatedly been held civilly liable, particularly in the US, for the harm caused by its products (see Section 16.1), it has traditionally not faced criminal charges. In 2016, on behalf of several public health organisations and individuals affected by tobacco-related disease, a criminal lawyer filed a formal complaint against the four largest tobacco manufacturers operating in the Netherlands— Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Tobacco—accusing them of attempted murder or manslaughter, attempted aggravated assault with premeditation, attempted deliberate harm to health with premeditation, and forgery.1 The documents that were submitted to the prosecutor argued that the tobacco industry knowingly and intentionally makes cigarettes more addictive.2 An additional 17 countries reportedly expressed interest in filing similar charges, with anti-smoking organisations and lawyers meeting in Geneva in 2017 to discuss the Dutch approach to the case.3 However, in February 2018, it was reported that the Dutch public prosecution department would not be proceeding with the criminal case, citing several reasons including “freedom of choice” and assumption of risk by the consumer.2 The Court of Appeal in the Hague dismissed an appeal from this decision in December 2018.4 The National Committee against Tobacco in France has also filed a criminal complaint against the tobacco industry for causing danger to life, alleging that tobacco manufacturers used filter holes in cigarettes to mislead regulators and the public as to the toxicity and health risks of their products.5

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1. No authors listed. Dutch prosecutors say won't open criminal case against big tobacco firms. Reuters, 2018. Available from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-netherlands-tobacco/dutch-prosecutors-say-wont-open-criminal-case-against-big-tobacco-firms-idUSKCN1G614S

2. Action on Smoking and Health. Dutch prosecutor rejects tobacco criminal case; many arguments for appeal exist. 2018. Available from: https://ash.org/dutch-prosecutor-rejects-tobacco-criminal-case/

3. Pieters J. Dutch 'smoking is murder' case goes global; lawsuits in 17 countries. NL Times, 2017. Available from: http://nltimes.nl/2017/07/04/dutch-smoking-murder-case-goes-global-lawsuits-17-countries

4. Corder M. Dutch prosecutors reject calls for criminal tobacco case. Chicago Tribune, 2018. Available from: http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/sns-bc-eu--netherlands-tobacco-20180222-story.html

5. Comite National Contre le Tabagisme. Le scandale du <<filtergate>>.  2018. Last update: Viewed Available from: http://www.cnct.fr/communiques-de-presse-44/le-scandale-du-filtergate-177.html.