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B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma responds to questions outside B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on Nov. 27, 2023. The Business Council of British Columbia has written a letter to Ms. Sharma expressing concerns about the Public Health Accountability and Cost Recovery Act.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Legislation allowing B.C. to sue social-media platforms for the public health-related costs they cause is written so broadly it will leave companies in other sectors vulnerable to similar suits, says a letter to the provincial attorney-general from a prominent business lobby group.

In an e-mail to Attorney-General Niki Sharma, obtained by The Globe and Mail Thursday, Business Council of British Columbia president and chief executive Laura Jones and director Denise Mullen detail how some of the organization’s 250 members in the retail, energy, manufacturing, technology, and health sectors have recently expressed their dismay at the Public Health Accountability and Cost Recovery Act.

“They are all alarmed by the broad scope and expansive new powers embedded in the proposed legislation raising the spectre of lawsuits around a diverse range of products from energy drinks and fast food to social media and natural gas,” says the three-page letter sent Tuesday by BCBC, which noted the letter was private and declined to comment further.

“We are offering to work together to help you better understand why businesses across so many sectors are worried and explore options to achieve your desired outcomes without risking a further decline in investment in the province.”

British Columbia Premier David Eby said last month that the bill is a way for his government to pursue companies “regardless of whether it’s a social media company or a company that produces vapes or produces an energy drink targeted at young kids, full of caffeine, knowing the addictive potential, knowing the potential harm of these products and the impacts of these harms.”

The bill is modelled on past B.C. legislation that allows the province to seek recovery of health-related tobacco and opioid damage costs, he said.

BCBC’s letter cites a legal analysis published last month by a team of Vancouver-based lawyers at Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP as capturing many of its concerns, namely that it could allow B.C. to sue any company that causes or contributes to any “health-related wrong,” a deterioration of health, problematic use, addiction or increased risk of harm.

The bill “creates a new governmental cause of action that purports to discard many foundational tort law principles and has the potential for an unprecedented expansion of liability for government costs and expenditures related to past and future products and services that the B.C. government alleges are harmful,” says the legal analysis published on the firm’s website in March.

“It could have far-reaching implications for companies in the technology, food, beverage, health and pharmaceutical, gambling, manufacturing, and resource industries, among many others.”

Hassan Ahmad, an assistant professor at the University of B.C.’s law school, said he also shares some of these concerns, including how the bill in its current form departs from traditional legal principles. He said the province would not have to prove the actions of a company caused financial harms, just that there were public-health harms associated.

“I’m not surprised that there would be this co-ordinated pushback on this bill because it’s far broader than anything I’ve seen,” Prof. Ahmad said.

Still, he added there may be utility to this bill – which mimics American legislation that has allowed dozens of states and municipalities to sue Facebook – even if a legal challenge fails to extract costs or change the behaviour harming young people in the province. That’s because laws like this drag topics “into the limelight” to begin a public conversation on how to better regulate these sectors, Dr. Ahmad said.

A spokesperson for B.C.’s Attorney-General said in a statement that Ms. Sharma continues to meet with companies skeptical of the legislation, which does not target local companies that operate “within the laws and regulations of their industry.”

Her statement characterizes the bill as an “incremental expansion in tort law” that allows the province to pursue damages from companies that make money from products that harm people in B.C. and result in health and other public care costs.

Facebook Canada Ltd. employees Rachel Curran and Kevin Chan are registered to lobby the ministries of finance and attorney-general as well as the Office of the Premier about a range of issues including the “population-level harms” posed by the bill, according to a March update from the provincial Office of the Registrar of Lobbyists.

The tech giant has also hired lobbyist Brad Lavigne, a former national campaign director of the federal New Democratic Party, to meet with the provincial government about the bill, according to the registry.

Spokespeople for Facebook’s parent company, Meta, did not immediately respond to a request to comment on BCBC’s letter. Mr. Lavigne declined an interview request.

Last week, four of Canada’s largest school boards filed lawsuits in Ontario against the companies behind social-media platforms Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat and TikTok, accusing them of negligently designing products that disrupt learning and rewire student behaviour while leaving educators to manage the fallout.

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