British Columbia introduced proposed legislation Thursday that would allow it to sue for health-related costs over damages by companies like social-media giants and energy drink manufacturers whose products could cause harm.

The Public Health Accountability and Cost Recovery Act is modelled on previous B.C. legislation that allows the province to seek recovery of health-related tobacco and opioid damage costs, Premier David Eby said.

B.C. has been battling tobacco companies in court for 25 years and winning, Eby said at a news conference.

He said the legislation takes into account the tragic youth suicide deaths of B.C. sextortion victims Carson Cleland and Amanda Todd.

"In the real world we would never allow a company to set up a space for kids where grown adults could be invited in to contact them, encourage them to share photographs and then threaten to distribute those photographs to their family and friends," he said.

Cleland, 12, took his life last October after falling victim to an online sextortion, Prince George RCMP said.

Shortly after speaking to the boy's parents, Eby promised to introduce government protections from online harms for children and students.

Todd’s suicide in 2012 at 15 years old created worldwide headlines and raised concerns about online abuse.

Dutch national Aydin Coban was convicted in B.C. Supreme Court in 2022 of child pornography, child luring and criminal harassment of Todd, and will serve his prison sentence in the Netherlands.

B.C. law to recover health costs from companies behind harmful products: AG Sharma. #BCPoli

Eby said companies would be shut down and their owners would face jail terms if their products were connected to harms to young people.

"And yet for some reason these companies, when they do the exact same thing through cellphones, the billionaires who run them resist accountability, resist any suggestion that they have responsibility for the harms that they are causing," he said.

The legislation would allow the 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," Eby said.

A spokesperson for social media company Meta was not immediately available for comment.

Attorney General Niki Sharma said, if passed, the legislation will allow the government to seek to claim public costs, including hospital treatments and medical appointments, and the costs of preventive measures to address the risk of disease, illness or injury.

The legislation will provide the opportunity for the government to take social media companies to court for harms their algorithms cause people, especially children, she said.

Sharma said the legislation also permits the government to hold companies, their directors and officers liable.

"This is a really powerful tool that wasn't in our tool kit before because it's a generally applied legislation," she said. "We can go after things when we're seeing this kind of population level harm. We think it's right that the government should be able to step in to act on behalf of people when they are paying the cost collectively."

A government report released in 2022 said tobacco-related illness was the leading cause of preventable death in B.C., at 6,000 people a year, and it cost the health system $2.3 billion annually.

Sharma said too many people in B.C. are living with negative health impacts from products they should be able to trust.

"Once this new legislation passes, we will be able to sue more wrongdoers, as we've done successfully with tobacco and opioid companies, and keep more people in B.C. healthy and safe."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 14, 2024.

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