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Feasibility of tobacco product liability litigation in Uganda: invited commentary
  1. Jacqueline Tumwine
  1. Correspondence to Jacqueline Tumwine, Health and Environmental Rights Organisation (HERO-Uganda), Uganda; jt327{at}law.georgetown.edu

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The US tobacco litigation experience discussed in the paper on product liability by Daynard and LeGresley1 shows that suing the tobacco industry to hold it responsible for harm caused by its products is a daunting yet rewarding undertaking. While public interest litigation in Uganda brought about smoke-free legislation,2 product liability litigation against the tobacco industry remains underdeveloped.

Uganda's legal system, based on English common law, allows individual personal injury claims and ‘class action’ or ‘representative action’ suits. Only two product liability cases have been brought against the tobacco industry in Uganda.3 4 Both were personal injury claims by individual smokers but were dismissed on technical grounds in their early stages. The plaintiffs were ordered to pay part of the defendants' costs, highlighting a disincentive for tobacco product liability litigation in low-income countries like Uganda. Such litigation is prohibitively expensive, especially when the financially superior tobacco companies use ‘delay tactics’ intended to pressure the plaintiff to give up. The proposal for legislation (relating to Article 19 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control) correcting the procedural rules that shift litigation costs to the losing party,1 would be relevant in Uganda. So would legislation granting legal aid to plaintiffs bringing claims against the tobacco industry.

Proving causation of disease by smoking would be particularly challenging in Uganda because of difficulty in tracing the necessary personal medical records of claimants. The paucity of data makes it difficult to bring suits against the tobacco industry to recover costs of treating tobacco-related illnesses. It is unclear whether the Ugandan government has the political will to sue tobacco companies. Furthermore, Uganda does not have a federalist political system to facilitate this type of litigation. However, in Nigeria the Federal government and three state governments, inspired by the USA, are suing British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International and International Tobacco Limited for costs of treating smoking-related diseases. These cases demonstrate to Uganda and the rest of Africa the evidential value of incriminating internal tobacco industry documents, the potential (via media coverage) for public education on tobacco control and the importance of international collaboration in supporting product liability litigation.

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Footnotes

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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