Australian navy found guilty of lung cancer death of sailor who took up smoking to fit in

Jonathan Pearlman
HMS Stalwart

A tribunal in Australia has ruled that the navy was responsible for the smoking addiction of a sailor who died of cancer after he took up the habit as a teenager to become “one of the men”.

Christopher Cooper, who died of tongue cancer in 2015, claimed he started to smoke shortly after enlisting as a fifteen-year-old in the 1970s due to “peer pressure” and was smoking a packet of cigarettes a day by the age of seventeen. He spent 23 years in the navy, including years aboard a ship on which cigarettes could be purchased duty free for about 20 pence a packet in the late 1970s.

"I was encouraged to smoke because of the 'stand easy' and mess activities on board when the bar was open," he said in his compensation claim in 2014.

"Taking a break meant having a smoke. I was fifteen at the time I enlisted and wanted to be one of the 'men'."

Mr Cooper applied for compensation shortly before his death, saying his cancer was due to his smoking and exposure to passive smoking.

The military’s compensation commission and a review board both rejected the claim, saying his smoking was a personal choice.

However, their decisions were overturned by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal which ruled on April 6 that his smoking was caused by his military service and this his widow, Bronwyn Cooper, was entitled to compensation. It said the military was not liable for all personnel who smoke but Mr Cooper’s habit was linked to his individual circumstances, including his age when joining and his easy access to cigarettes.

"A boy of that age who was living and working in a closed and strange environment would necessarily have been more susceptible to peer pressure and more likely to adopt the habits and culture of those he was living with to 'fit in' and to make life bearable," the tribunal found.

Referring to his personal circumstances, the tribunal stated: "His youth, distance from his family, rapid onset of smoking, length of service and easy access to cigarettes are all key factors in determining whether the deceased's smoking habit was caused by his defence service.”

The tribunal noted that Mr Cooper did not increase his smoking after leaving the navy in 2000 and eventually quit the habit in 2005.

The damages amount has yet to be decided.

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