Pubdate: Thu, 19 Nov 1998
Source: Toronto Star (Canada)
Page: A6
Copyright: 1998, The Toronto Star
Author: Tim Harper, Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau


Leading Charge Against Tobacco Companies To Recoup Health Costs

OTTAWA - She stands ``almost'' 5-foot-2 and she'd need the help of the
Toronto phone book to look you in the eye.

But Penny Priddy may be big tobacco's worst nightmare.

The British Columbia health minister is a politician whose combative
views have been shaped by life experiences atypical of many in public

She's the daughter of adoptive parents, who grew up in a life of
self-described privilege on the Kingsway in Toronto, but she's still
searching for her birth parents.

She's a female health minister who has survived breast cancer, and a
former health care worker who held the hand of a woman at Toronto
General as she bled to death after using a knitting needle in a
self-induced abortion.

She walks and talks like she's double-parked, able to flash a quick
wit but always with an underlying message that seems to be saying to
visitors: ``Cut to the chase, I'm busy.''

She likes to see results, she says, but this time she's picked a fight
that's going to take a lot of stamina.

One week ago, Priddy's NDP government sought unspecified damages -
likely in the billions - seeking to recoup some of the estimated $400
million the province spends a year on health care directly linked to
smoking-related illnesses.

Yesterday, Priddy won an endorsement of her lawsuit from federal
Health Minister Allan Rock.

She says Manitoba has shown interest in jumping on board and she
not-so-subtly chides Ontario Health Minister Elizabeth Witmer for not
making time to meet with her while she tries to drum up support today
in Toronto.

Should the tobacco giants be worried about this 54-year-old mother of
two, grandmother of one?

``I'm an only, adopted child,'' she says with a laugh. ``I think
everybody should be a little worried when they encounter me.''

And should Rob Parker, who works for the industry through the Canadian
Tobacco Manufacturers' Council, be worried about her?

``Well, he should at least,'' she says with a well-placed breath, ``pause
for thought.''

Priddy also lent her support to Toronto Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett
(St. Paul's), who sought to introduce a bill in the House of Commons
yesterday that would impose a 50-cent levy on each carton of
cigarettes to fund anti-smoking measures for Canadian youth.

But the Liberal government moved quickly to thwart Bennett's

No sooner had the backbencher introduced the measure in the Commons
than House leader Don Boudria rose to object to it on procedural and
constitutional grounds. He maintained the legislation amounts to a tax

A final decision on the admissibility of Bennett's bill will be up to
Commons Speaker Gilbert Parent.

Although she's now gaining a national profile, Priddy is in her fifth
portfolio since jumping from suburban Surrey school board to
provincial politics in 1991.

``Everyone has been marked by her abiding concern for children,'' said
anti-smoking activist Cynthia Callard, who has worked with her.

Priddy also gained notoriety when she was involved in a prank in the
Victoria legislature when a dancing, wind-up penis ended up on the
desk of a Liberal MLA.

Parker dismisses the lawsuit as a continual ``headline hunt'' by
successive B.C. health ministers because the province has been unable
to come up with any evidence to buttress its claim that the cigarette
makers target kids.

``I think it's a matter of them trying to come up with some imagined
enemy of British Columbia and then be seen to be beating up on them,''
he said.

No one has served the industry with any legal papers, he said.
Instead, he said, B.C. is moving by ``endless press

Priddy is unlikely to be bowed by the industry she's chosen to

She showed early she could deal with the schoolyard taunts over being

`` `Ha, ha, your parents had to take you home even though you were
ugly,' I'd tell them. `I was chosen from a cast of thousands.' ''

Growing up in the well-ordered, comfort of the Kingsway of the 1950s
did nothing to prepare her for life, she now says.

``Your parents worried about whether you got membership to the golf
and country club. Everybody went south in the winter. Everybody had a
cottage in Muskoka,'' she said. ``It was a very narrow, very limited
exposure to what the real world looked like.

``There were no Jewish people there, no colour in the neighbourhood.
It was the Kingsway.''

She is seeking her birth parents because she feels she's finally
mature enough to deal with the thought of someone abandoning her at

But three other events conspired to force her to deal with the issue
eventually dealt with by every adopted child.

Her father died and she learned her birth name was Frances

She became a grandmother and then was stricken with breast

She felt the need to learn some family history and heritage for
grandson Liam and she needed to know whether there was a history of
breast cancer in her family.

Even that bout with breast cancer has been recounted with a theatrical
flair: ``I know that this is a horror movie, but I am the star.''

Enduring cancer, she said, meant it was she who got the presents,
flowers, and cards, she once told an interviewer. She got to cry in
any room in her house.

Her experience as a nurse helped shape her views on abortion, her
experience with breast cancer (she's been free of the disease for more
than two years) taught her how women in that situation need
information and how terrible it was to be seen as a victim.

``It taught me how important it was to ensure patients have as much
power as we can give them,'' she said. ``Particularly around issues as
terrifying as that.''

The tobacco war? That is shaped from her experience as a mother and
now, a grandmother, she said.

`I'm just passionate about children,'' she says. ``I want them to be
really healthy, really smart and really good at what they do.

``They're going to make decisions about our pension plan, where we're
going to live when we're aged, what type of environment we will be
living in.''

In the U.S., where 39 states have launched lawsuits against the
industry, tobacco companies have settled with 12 states, agreeing to
pay out almost $400 billion (U.S.). They have also accepted some
advertising restrictions.

Despite the recent success in the U.S., the task is

The day Priddy brought her crusade to Ottawa, statistics from
Washington showed a 28 per cent increase in the number of U.S. college
students who smoke, at least occasionally.

Youth smoking in Canada is also on the rise.

Tobacco companies have launched their own court challenge of Priddy's
Tobacco Damages and Health Care Costs Recovery Act, which, it argues,
gives politicians the power to tell judges what to do.

People think of British Columbians as those people who live ``way out
there'' beyond the mountains, she said. All the better to sneak up on
the enemy, she suggests.
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Checked-by: Patrick Henry